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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 1st, 2007

GO Transit hopes back on track

with 4 comments

Guelph Tribune

Doug Hallett, Guelph

(Aug 31, 2007)

GO Transit has taken the first step in planning for the prospect of GO train service being extended to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo, says local MPP Liz Sandals.

The GO Transit board has approved doing an environmental assessment of what would be involved in double-tracking the rail line to Guelph and K-W.

“That’s really the first step in planning, because if you’re going to do good commuter train service you have to double-track,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Well I could argue with that. After all, it is possible that since most GO services run into Toronto in the morning and back again in the evening, you could do the first services just by careful scheduling. Or you could create more capacity on the existing track just by upgrading the signalling. Of course in either case you would first need the co-operation of CN, and their business is freight. Passenger trains were a nuisance they were glad to be rid of. And the good thing about governments (from the railway’s point of view) is that they tend to respond to passenger complaints by spending the passenger’s (and others) taxes. Commuter rail has become a cash cow for the railways. A wonderful opportunity to get money to do things that, while not important enough to get on CN’s budget, are nice to have if someone else is paying. And if I were working for GO Transit I would want a safety margin. You don’t depend on a single track line with a railway with the recent record like CN’s. So OK let’s accept you need double tracking.

Asked how optimistic she is that GO’s decision to do an environmental assessment will lead to GO trains coming here, Sandals suggested there’s been a change of attitude at GO.

“I guess what I’m really pleased about is that I see a lot of movement in the last four years,” she replied.

When she and Kitchener Centre MPP John Milloy began meeting with GO Transit and the Ministry of Transportation to make it clear that extending GO trains was important to their constituents, she said, GO officials weren’t overly receptive.

“I think that when we first started meeting with GO, they were really focused on improving service in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area).”

But now GO officials have accepted that they need to start planning for GO train expansion outside the GTA, she said. “I see a change of attitude that says we need to start looking at this.”

This change in attitude is linked to the province’s recent Places to Grow legislation, which designates both Guelph and K-W as growth areas, she said.

This is the critical issue for commuter rail. Does it go where it can relieve existing traffic congestion, by diverting people from driving? Or do you decide that it is far too hard to concentrate growth, and accept that longer distance commuting is inevitable, so some at least should be on trains? Once upon a time, growth pressure on the South East of England was so intense, and so little land was available for new build close to London that I worked on a study for the county councils on how much track capacity the railway system had to determine which existing lines could accommodate new stations or extra trains to allow for more “dormitory development”.

We know better now of course. We have got more experience in “brown field” development (re-use of disused industrial lands) and of denser development patterns – transit oriented development. One planner I knew remarked “If you’ve got traffic congestion, it’s because you got the land use wrong”.

Guelph and Kitchener Waterloo have been growing, but are not suburbs of the GTA. They are a growth node in their own right. Based on high tech companies that draw their highly skilled labour force and much of their product development from the University of Waterloo. The region used to have electric trains to Toronto. They fell victim to the dirty thirties – long before the freeway and rising car ownership would have killed them.

CNER closure notice

The interurbans built the North American suburbs and were responsible for the start of suburban sprawl. The Pacific Electric Railway started the growth of Los Angeles (as those who saw “Who Killed Roger Rabbit” will know). E.L.Doctorow wrote in “Ragtime” about how it was possible to travel from Chicago to New York by interurban, changing trains at the urban boundaries.

There are those who argue that West Coast Express prompted more commuting from the valley into Vancouver, and it is true that the realtors used proximity to the WCE stations to sell houses. But those people would have moved anyway – or other people like them. They just have more transportation choice now – and anyway the extent of the stimulus has been an order of magnitude less than the stimulus of widening a freeway.

But what I would be thinking about is the way the trains operate. Do you start with the assumption that this line is just for the commuters to the major centre (in this case downtown Toronto)? Or do you recognize that the commuting pattern in the new megalopolis (horrible world but accurate assessment) is much more dispersed and the trains should also be carrying people at all times of day and between as many of the suburban centres as possible. That many workplaces have relocated to Mississauga and the freeway exits of the QEW and the 401. That the airport is an important hub that needs service too. At one time there was even the idea that there should be fast frequent electric trains again – they called the idea GO ALRT and based it on SkyTrain (no, really, I am not making this up) because they would be built in Thunder Bay by UTDC. And they would serve the whole of the GTA. Not Guelph.

One of the most critical features of the Livable Region Strategy was that it should not be necessary for people to live far from their workplaces unless they positively wanted to. We would build a compact urban region with complete communities. Not dormitory suburbs and one major centre of commuting. That is why the idea of expanding Highway 1 here is so repulsive. In Guelph, it is probably too late, and the opening of the GO train services will do it much better than VIA ever did. Because I am sure that there is already a lot of driving that can be diverted.

I just wish that they would look at a separate railway – electric, fast and frequent, and not subject to the whims and priorities of the very profitable private company that CN has become.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2007 at 10:08 am

Vancouver transit system braces for back-to-school rush

with 8 comments


I would say “Translink admits defeat”. Actually the short turning of some SkyTrains at Broadway as a downtown shuttle is innovative and shows that Doug Kelsey is still one of the sharpest knives in their box.

I wonder if CMBC thought of anything innovative. Like telling operators that they cannot take their annual leave in September and putting out extra buses? Nah, the union would not stand for that. Anyway, do they have the capacity to put out extra buses at peak periods? Could they shift around scheduled maintenance to free up some vehicles for the critical few weeks? Again, not something that I would recommend, based on the number of failed buses I have seen on the back of tow trucks this summer.

Or maybe SFU and UBC could extend their practice of staggering classes – or do they lack the ability to communicate with students until they actually turn up on campus?

This happens very year. And yet other than all door loading on B Lines at Broadway, the response has always been the same, for as long as I have been around to observe it. And that is because while Translink has some very smart people on its payroll, innovative thinking is not highly valued in the corporate culture.

Much better just to tell people that they should not even try to travel in peak periods

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2007 at 8:59 am

Posted in transit