Long dormant after a turbulent initial Environmental Assessment phase, it appears that Blue 22, the proposed plan for an airport rail link, has awoken and may be railroaded though the opposition and before Metrolinx gets its act together and releases their delayed regional transit plan. Meanwhile, other options, outlined below, are largely ignored.
Blue 22, as planned, would offer a one-seat ride from Union Station to Pearson Airport for a cost of $20 one-way (when first presented to the public in 2003-2005). The route would follow the CN Weston Subdivision through Parkdale, the Junction, Mount Dennis, Weston and Rexdale, splitting off near the 427 and entering the airport with a stop at Terminal 1 next to the current people mover station. The brand ‘Blue 22’ was derived from the expected travel time, 22 minutes. The plan was originally announced in 2000 by the federal government and Mel Lastman during a flurry of announcements coinciding with Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics.
The proponent of the proposal is the large engineering conglomerate SNC-Lavalin, chosen in 2003. SNC-Lavalin’s proposal for a privately owned and operated rail link piggybacks on rail improvements that will be necessary to provide all-day, two-way service on the Georgetown line to at least Mount Pleasant station in northwest Brampton. The plan is to use several refurbished Rail Diesel Cars, which were originally built by Budd in the 1950s, and widely used by CN, CP and later VIA until about 1990 (RDCs are still used for two VIA services in Northern Ontario and on Vancouver Island).
Blue 22 is flawed for many reasons, and Torontonians should be demanding better. The initial Class EA called for only limited GO Transit improvements for its Georgetown rail corridor, while SNC-Lavalin’s premium express trains would be using up most of the new capacity, though hourly GO service is still a possibility, but Blue 22 would get priority over all other users, including GO, VIA and local TTC or community uses, like Railpath. Finally, this project, if word of a fall final decision is true, will come before Metrolinx releases its final transport plan which may have its own vision for the corridor. As a privately-operated service, SNC-Lavalin intended to charge $20 for a one-way ticket, which would price many out of the market, or maintain an advantage for taxis and even the Pacific Western Buses, which provide a door-to-door service downtown. With limited stops, the plan ignores markets other than tourists and business travellers heading downtown (only 17 percent of travellers departing from Pearson originate in the downtown area), and ignores travellers heading to or from the airport from elsewhere in Toronto and the GTA, and the pricing scheme all but shuts out airport workers, or commuters heading to nearby offices. Only one intermediate stop, Bloor/Dundas West, was considered.
The initial proposal was derailed by a particularly angry Weston community, who packed local meetings, including the cavernous Prayer Palace on Jane Street in May 2005. They were angry as the plans called for some of the rail crossing be closed, and others sunk into underpasses, because of the increase in the number of trains operating along the rail line, most of which would not stop. They not only attacked the proposal for the impact to their neighbourhood, they found other serious flaws, such as the fact that SNC Lavalin was also acting as the EA consultant for the project that it was advocating. As a result, the initial EA was junked and a full, broader EA has emerged, with a new EA consultant and a supposed full look at the alternative technologies and alignments. But the new Ontario transit EA process, now used to rush Transit City lines through, can be used here to resurrect the original Blue 22 with minimal delay or consultation.
Some have criticized the Weston residents of being no better than anti-development NIMBYs. In this writer’s opinion, that is far from the truth. The Weston Community Coalition has been on record in supporting an increase in the number of trains through Weston, but they want a public transit solution that would actually bring some benefits to this mixed-income neighbourhood. They also put forward the alternative of a trenched rail corridor that would leave the existing streets at grade and better mitigate increased noise from the extra train traffic.
There are several options that should be studied instead of Blue 22. In an earlier post here, regular commenter uSkyscraper has listed all the different ways in which North American airports are connected to their downtowns. All of these are public-subsidized services, though some services charge a premium for accessing the airport.
Heavy rail subway. Theoretically, Pearson Airport could be served by a heavy rail subway, like those in Cleveland (North America’s first airport rail link), Chicago (O’Hare and Midway), Washington-National, San Francisco, Atlanta, Mexico City, and the nearly complete Canada Line mini-metro in Vancouver. (This was also the solution that the winner of the 2008 Olympic bid went with, with the Beijing Airport Subway opening last month.) If ever built, a subway to Pearson would either be an extension of the advocated Downtown Relief Line, or less likely, an Eglinton Subway.
Light rail. This is a common method of linking airports with downtowns in North America, with Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, Minneapolis, and proposed lines in Phoenix and Dallas joining this group. This is actually a much more feasible and likely solution for Toronto, at least in the short-to-medium term, using available space in the Weston rail corridor to link either to Dundas West station, Union Station, and/or the Eglinton-Crosstown Transit City line, which would be tunnelled directly east of the line anyway. A light rail line on the Weston corridor would benefit from separated operation from street traffic and would likely have metro-style stop spacing. If built, this LRT would have more in common with rapid transit as in Calgary or many US cities, than with local Transit City routes. Steve Munro has mused about this as a solution (at least as far south as Jane or Eglinton) on his blog.
I have used the Baltimore LRT rail link last October. While the trains are infrequent, the service is fast and directly serves Baltimore’s downtown core. The fare was very inexpensive as well.
BWI-destined light rail train in Downtown Baltimore.
Regional rail/rail shuttle. Cities in North America that have a regional or commuter train connection to the airport, either directly or via short rail shuttle include Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark, and New York-JFK (the AirTrain connects with both the subway and with the Long Island Rail Road). This is much more common in Europe and Asia, where in many cases intercity trains serve large stations at or near the airport. Newark and Baltimore have frequent intercity Amtrak service adjacent to their airports. Montreal may go this route, and VIA does offer shuttle service from their Dorval station to Montreal-Trudeau.
The regional rail/shuttle set-up, along with light rail, are the most immediately feasible solutions. The advantages of this solution include providing a station at Woodbine Racetrack where VIA trains from London, Kitchener and Guelph could gain direct access to the airport, as well as GO trains to Brampton and Georgetown. VIA is planning much-needed track improvements on the north mainline, which could improve frequencies and improve travel times on this rotue. As well, it adds impetus for frequent rail service to places like Malton and Brampton, often overlooked in regional transit plans.
The other thing going for this concept is that Metrolinx is promoting the concept of regional rail to complement or replace GO’s commuter service, tentatively called REX, or Regional Express. If built, REX would provide relatively frequent regional rail services across the Toronto and Hamilton areas, similar to S-Bahn in Germany/Austria or RER in Paris. A stop here on a line to west Brampton or Georgetown could be part of that network.
The proposed Finch West Transit City line could also be extended here from nearby Humber College, and with connections to TTC, Mississauga, Brampton and York Region buses, this could become an important rail hub, serving the lower-income Rexdale neighbourhood, and also the planned Woodbine Live commercial development on the racetrack lands.
A rail shuttle to the airport, either as an extension of the airport peoplemover or as light rail, could run to here or as in some cities, like Vienna, a premium airport express could be provided as an alternative to riding a regional rail train, and even run directly into the airport lands as planned, but allowing passengers from local trains, GO/REX and VIA to use their trains at Woodbine for free or a nominal fee, similar to other airport service premiums.
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Any of the above schemes would provide real rapid transit for the underserved northwest end of Toronto, serve many more markets than the exclusive downtown traveller crowd, and provide Weston with what it has been asking for – more trains, but more service to go with it. There would be a trade-off between faster service and more frequent stops, but a more reasoned proposal would solve several of our transit issues with one shot.
There is still the opportunity for SNC-Lavalin to profit from this arrangement if necessary – a parallel premium one-seat ride could still be offered, much like Vienna. Or it could merely have the contract to build the necessary infrastructure and/or operate the trains at a fare and service model that would benefit a wider market.
If the government is committed to have an airport link built and operated quickly, private partnerships are one way to go, but these have mixed results (the Canada Line or the Viva system in York Region are examples of P3 done right, the 407 or Brampton Civic Hospital are examples of P3s gone wrong). This is where SNC-Lavalin, with its construction and engineering expertise, can help.
Finally, one can look to the example of London-Heathrow, where one can choose between the low-fare and slow Piccadilly Line, which was the first rail link, opened in 1977. Later, to serve business travellers, the rapid, and very expensive Heathrow Express was introduced in 1998. Finally, in 2005, a mid-tier service, Heathrow Connect, half the fare of Heathrow Express, but 25 minutes to Paddington versus 15 minutes, and designed for travellers heading to intermediate stops and airport employees. With Blue 22, the cart (express alternative) is being but before the horse (a simple, public, rail link).
photo by Sam Javanrouh