Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

John Tory's SmartTrack: A relief line that doesn't provide much relief

By: Metro Published on Tue Jun 30 2015

It's become clear that Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan was a genius piece of campaign strategy. During last year’s election, SmartTrack was the thing that defined Tory’s brand after a shaky start. It gave him a platform, differentiated him from his opponents and gave him some credibility on transit — always one of the top issues for voters.

But genius campaign strategy does not necessarily make for genius policy. A recent presentation by Metrolinx on the Yonge Relief Network Study pours some cold water on the SmartTrack strategy, suggesting it might not do enough to solve Toronto's most pressing transit problem.

That problem, of course, is this:

That chart represents the biggest challenge facing the TTC today. The Yonge subway corridor — the backbone of the entire network — has peak ridership in excess of its capacity. Every day at peak hour, Toronto crams about 31,000 people onto a subway line with a design capacity of 28,000.

This problem has been obvious for many years, and it’s totally absurd that nothing has been done to fix it. Instead of looking at relief strategies, politicians have spent decades clamouring for suburban subway lines.

It’s as if we’re a family whose house is on fire — literally burning to the ground in a mighty blaze — but we've decided not to call the fire department and instead draw up plans for a new three-car garage and a pretty sweet basement reno.

There are, thankfully, some strategies in place to start to fix this. The TTC is pursuing ATC, or Automatic Train Control, which they say will boost capacity to 36,000 at peak hour, mostly because robot train drivers can operate trains at higher frequencies than humans, provided they don’t become self-aware and murder us. It’ll cost $562 million, according to recent estimates.

There’s some doubt that a real world application of ATC will provide that much extra capacity — unless we also replace the passengers with robots — but even if it does, the Yonge subway will still be at capacity by 2031.

So, uh, that's not good. How do we fix it?

In addition to ATC, there are some other projects on the books that will help. A bit. By providing some transit alternatives to existing Yonge subway trips, projects like the Spadina subway extension, the Eglinton LRT, the Finch LRT, the Sheppard LRT and the Scarborough subway are expected to reduce peak hour demand on Yonge by 1,300 riders.

That's mot enough to really make a long-term dent in the problem, unfortunately. And that relief would be instantly erased if the TTC were somehow goaded into extending the Yonge subway line north to Richmond Hill. (Imagine it: “Richmond Hill DESERVES subways!”)

That leaves just two real solutions: expanded use of existing GO Transit corridors — which the provincial government calls RER, or “regional express rail” — and a new subway line, which has generally been referred to as the “downtown relief line” even though everyone thinks that name kind of sucks.

Enhanced GO Transit service was in the works long before Tory ever uttered the word “SmartTrack.” Barring a major change in priorities at Queen’s Park, it’s happening. Under the RER plan, service will be provided by electric trains every 15 minutes on many corridors.

GO RER does provide some relief for the Yonge subway, but not as much as you might hope. Here’s how it looks:

Improved GO service, coupled with existing transit projects, is projected to reduce demand on the Yonge subway to 32,300 in the peak hour. That would put the line below its maximum capacity, assuming ATC improvements provide the expected boost. But it doesn’t allow for much breathing room — trains would still be about 90 per cent full.

Given ridership will likely continue to grow at that point — again discounting the possibility we're all murdered by robot train operators — we need to do even more. That’s where either SmartTrack or the relief line subway comes in.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to model SmartTrack ridership projections, because it’s increasingly unclear what SmartTrack actually is, or how it differs from the provincial RER plan.

Is SmartTrack just RER but with more frequent trains, better TTC integration and a goofy underground tunnel on Eglinton West? Is there something else that differentiates it?

No one seems to know. Lacking those details, Metrolinx modelled an enhanced RER configuration, where trains would run on the GO corridor at intervals more frequent than every 15 minutes, with new stations added.

But it turns out this version of enhanced GO service doesn’t provide much additional Yonge subway relief compared to the RER plan. In fact, the enhanced GO service modelled by Metrolinx saw demand on the Yonge subway line reduced by just 400 riders at peak hour.

The relief line subway, on the other hand, shows major potential to provide real relief. Just look at this chart comparing the options:

A build-out of the eastern leg of the relief line subway from Union Station to Sheppard Avenue would remove 11,600 riders from the Yonge subway at peak hour. That’s an enormous capacity boost, and all for the low, low price of just $7.8 billion — about the same as Tory’s SmartTrack plan.

None of this means SmartTrack as a terrible idea that should be trashed immediately. I’ve always been a fan of using the GO corridors for local transit in some form or another. Besides, we know way too little about what SmartTrack will actually look like to make a firm judgement. It’s possible, I guess, that SmartTrack does something to provide relief to the Yonge subway that wasn’t captured in these Metrolinx projections.

This all leaves too many questions. Let's start with these:

If SmartTrack is just an enhanced version of the GO RER plan that the provincial government already intends to build, does it really make sense for the City of Toronto to fund a third of it?

Are the local enhancements to GO service that will happen under the SmartTrack plan really worth $2.7 billion in foregone tax revenue? (Because, don’t kid yourselves, that’s what tax increment financing is.)

Perhaps most importantly, what problem is Toronto trying to solve with SmartTrack?

Because it's not likely to solve our most pressing one.

This post was originally published at on 2015-06-30T00:00:00.000Z

About the author

Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
Website / Twitter / Email Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott


Follow Me on Twitter

Recent Posts

Recent Comments