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Oct 04

Better passenger rail access for Stratford?

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News

Transport Action Ontario long-time member Ken Westcar has published an op-ed in the Stratford Beacon Herald on October 2, 2019 outlining a practical vision to improving passenger rail service in Southwestern Ontario. The article is reproduced below:

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The Stratford train station could prove to be part of the solution to Southwestern Ontario’s transportation woes. (Supplied photo) jpg, SF

By international standards, Stratford’s railway station is a rather sad place. Casual observers see it as a rather quaint reminder of the past. Nevertheless, the colourful flower baskets in summertime and general tidiness of the place provide some hope for a brighter future.

And perhaps that future is hiding in plain sight.

Municipal politicians and passenger rail advocates from Kitchener to London have been quite vocal on the role this underutilized rail corridor could play in a transportation plan for Southwestern Ontario, given the predicted 15 to 30 per cent population growth projected in the region between 2017 and 2041. Add the Ministry of Transportation’s ongoing travails on widening Highway 7/8 through Shakespeare to four lanes, and it’s easy to understand why there’s shared public interest in bringing better passenger rail services to Stratford and beyond.

However, past efforts by passenger rail supporters in engaging with senior levels of government have been akin to punching a cloud. Responses, if any, are dismissive and show an unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussion. Several years ago, Via Rail made a vague commitment to consider additional services, but nothing happened. Then the last Liberal provincial government touted the ill-conceived idea of high-speed rail project that would bypass Stratford entirely and spell the final demise of the city’s once proud railway history.

While it’s understood the implementation of a new rail passenger rail service or the improvement of an existing one is quite complex, it needs to be recognized at both the federal and provincial levels that it’s a critical part of the future mobility matrix. It’s not just about moving people from A to B, but more about social progress through connectivity, wellness and care of our environment.

This corridor is also served by highways that are increasingly unreliable, congested and a major source of air and water pollution. Ongoing improvements to the Highway 7/8-Highway 401 interchange near Kitchener may make the travel situation worse over time, not better. Relentless car-dependent urban sprawl guarantees it. For this very reason, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has been unequivocal in its support of expanded rail transportation across the province.

The planned all-day, two-way GO train services to Kitchener should incorporate the concept of westward extension to London and perhaps Sarnia on existing and upgraded rail infrastructure. Better use of what already exists makes service improvement affordable to taxpayers and quicker to deliver. It has much lower risk and is expandable.

Several operational and funding ideas have emerged from local discussions:

  • Terminate bi-level GO trains in Kitchener and provide cross-platform connection to regional rail services to London with stops that encourage transit-oriented development.
  • Employ European-style, single-level, multiple-unit trains that are less costly to operate on regional lines.
  • Low, platform-level loading for quick and accessible boarding and a single or two-person crew.
  • Presto or contactless fare payment to encourage ridership.
  • Sponsorship of stations by local municipalities and businesses (St. Marys station is already municipally owned).
  • A new London international airport station to provide an intermodal connection and induce rail passenger demand. (It is understood a low-cost airline is considering expansion in London with up to 250,000 passengers annually). This station and airport parking facilities could also serve rapid urban growth to the east of London.

A collaborative approach between stakeholders could make this project financially viable and sustainable if a broad view of the social and economic benefits is considered.

But opposition to passenger rail expansion often trumpets the public subsidy issue. This must be tempered by the fact that, according to the C.D. Howe Institute, a Canadian think tank, the average public subsidy for highways in Canada is 30 per cent and growing. In other words, fuel taxes and licensing fees cover less than 70 per cent of the cost of building and maintaining our roads. And it doesn’t include the unquantifiable externalities of air and water pollution and their growing burden on public health budgets.

Good highways will always be part of Southwestern Ontario’s transportation system, but making them the default option for public investment will almost certainly put us on the wrong side of history. Growing concerns over carbon emissions, rapidly escalating congestion in the Greater Toronto Area-Hamilton area, an aging population and increasing focus on wellness as a measure of economic and social success requires us to think differently about personal transportation.

The solution is, indeed, in plain sight. Politicians and planners need to park their preconceived ideas and listen to what the public is saying. This is why the Liberal-sponsored Toronto to London high-speed rail project is on ice. It was a solution looking for a problem. Stratford station epitomizes a problem, a solution and an opportunity. Time to open our eyes.

Sep 09

“Ideas in Motion” 2019 Policy Briefings for Federal Election

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News , Northern Ontario , Press Releases and Open Letters

The Transport Action family, under the leadership of the national organization, Transport Action Canada, has issued several one-page policy briefings on critical transportation issues. These have been delivered to all federal parties.

Several of these are very relevant to transportation in Ontario. These are

  • Policy Support for Passenger Rail
  • Rebuilding a National Network (pertains to motor coach network)
  • Southwestern Ontario Rail and Bus

The briefings can be viewed here: https://www.transportaction.ca/documents/policy-briefings/

Aug 27

Greater Toronto Fare (and Service) Integration Moving Slowly – Needs More Commitment

By Transport Action Ontario | Latest News , Urban Transit

Setting up a region-wide integrated transit fare system across the 11 transit agencies of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) has been a goal of transit planners for over a decade.  Metrolinx’s 2007 Regional Transportation Plan (The Big Move) proposed Big Move #6 as “Implement a region-wide integrated transit fare system by 2012 that allows users to pay a seamless, integrated fare for all transit systems across the region”. 

The work to meet this objective has not gone well.  The first five years were largely spent on getting the Presto card and hardware up and used by riders, and ensuring that all transit agencies, especially the Toronto Transit System (TTC), used the system.  Serious policy work on fare integration did not start until late 2013.  The key barriers to integration were identified as:

  • Different fares for similar journeys in different parts of the region
  • Double fares resulting from lack of fare integration between GO and TTC and between TTC and neighbouring transit providers

Various fare models were developed and analyzed over the next three years, including

  • Modify the existing system (reduce barriers)
  • Create new zone-based system
  • Create new hybrid system – fares by distance and flat fare
  • Fares by distance
  • Fares by mode
  • Fares by time (eg 2 hours travel on one fare)

In September 2017, Metrolinx concluded that modifying the existing system captured considerable benefits and was least disruptive/least complex, by avoiding the need for centralized fare setting and revenue allocation.  Four specific “step-by-step” strategies were set:

  • Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
  • Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
  • Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
  • Fare policy harmonization

Transport Action Ontario agrees with this incremental approach to removing obvious fare irritants.

Limited progress on these strategies has occurred since that time

  • In January, 2018, the Wynne government initiated a $1.50 co-fare between TTC and GO, representing a discount of about 50%, and committed to  a subsidy of about $40M for a three year period to compensate for lost revenue by GO Transit and TTC.  This July, the Province announced it would halt the subsidy in 2020. Metrolinx has stated it will continue to offer the discount on TTC transfers to GO and has urged TTC to match the transfer discount to the TTC.  TTC has indicated that a detailed cost benefit analysis will be conducted prior to a decision in September.
  • In Spring, 2018, the Wynne government announced a $1.50 discount between TTC and adjacent 905 transit providers, and provided a 3 year subsidy of $70M to account for lost revenue.  This promise died when the Liberals lost the election.
  • In Spring, 2018, the Wynne government also announced a reduction in the fare for short GO trips, providing a subsidy of $90M over three years.   This promise also died when the Liberals lost the election.  However, in Spring 2019, the new provincial government did reduce GO fares for shorter trips to $3.70 minimum, while raising them for longer trips.  This more closely aligns fares  to local transit fares and may provide some relief to the subway network. In this case, Metrolinx has indicated that no additional provincial subsidy was offered, meaning that GO just “ate” any revenue loss.
  • In Summer, 2018, TTC implemented a two hour transfer policy, consistent with that offered by 905 agencies.   This is the first concrete example of fare policy harmonization.

In addition to fare integration, there is the related problem of service integration. Currently there is a frustrating absence of a “customer service” attitude when more than one transit agency is involved. One bad example is where a 905 transit agency (eg YRT or Miway) bus route goes to a subway station within Toronto (eg Finch or Islington). There is a “closed door” policy wherein riders boarding within Toronto cannot use the 905 bus to go to the subway, even if convenient and available. They must wait for a TTC bus, even if inconvenient.

We recently met with Metrolinx staff to review the events of the past few years.  On fare integration, staff indicated that it was their belief that the Province would not be providing any more fare integration subsidies.  Any reduction of double fares would come from the affected agencies, either asymmetrically (unilaterally) or bilaterally.  For example, it would be possible for York Region Transit to unilaterally accept transfers from TTC at a lower rate, independent of whether TTC would reciprocate.    Staff also indicated that umbrella agency working groups were studying service integration and policy harmonization ideas, and to expect announcements soon.

Transport Action Ontario is disappointed with the slow progress of fare and service integration and urges all agencies and governments to commit funds and resources to this important area.

Aug 27

Federal Funding Committed for two Toronto Transit Projects

By Transport Action Ontario | Latest News , Urban Transit

On August 26, 2019, the federal government confirmed more than $1B of funding for two Toronto rapid transit projects – capacity improvements at Bloor-Yonge subway station ($500M) and construction of 6 new Smart Track (ST) stations  ($585M).   The funding comes from the PTIF-2 program which will direct about $4.9B to Toronto transit over the coming 11 years.   For further details on PTIF, check the Transport Action Ontario (TAO) report “Update on Federal Funding Commitments for the GTHA” in May, 2019.  As can be read, the Smart Track funding is not a surprise,  as Prime Minister Harper had previously committed similar funding.

The Bloor-Yonge capacity improvement project is a solid, badly-needed project with little controversy. It will build/modify platforms on both Lines 2 and 1 and add stairs, escalators and elevators.

However, there is considerable strategic uncertainly about the Smart Track stations.  See Figure below.    

The following summarizes key facts on the stations:

  • There is no question that stations at all 6 locations are needed.  TAO’s seminal report in 2013 on “Regional Rapid Rail” recommended new GO stations at all 6 locations.
  • However, changes to the proposed subway network may put the viability of several of the ST stations in question.  The proposed Ontario Line (subway) includes stations near the ST stations at Gerard-Carlaw, East Harbour and King-Liberty.  Similarly, the proposed Line 2 Subway Extension includes a station near the ST station at Lawrence-Kennedy.  These may impact rider demand for these ST stations.
  • There is also uncertainty about the role that Transit Oriented Development will play in station construction.  New provincial policy indicates that developers must contribute to the costs of new stations, in return for development rights.  It is unclear if this stipulation will apply if federal funding is in place, or if there is developer interest in the ST stations.

TAO will continue to track this funding and the projects and advocate for the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Jul 23

Letter to Minister Mulroney – Rail and Bus Transportation Plan for Southwestern Ontario

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Press Releases and Open Letters

Ontario’s Budget 2019 confirmed that the Province is actively exploring opportunities in Southwestern Ontario to enhance passenger train speeds and service levels on existing railway corridors, as well as opportunities for inter-community bus services or other transit solutions that better support the immediate public transportation needs of the region. A transportation plan will be brought forward by fall, 2019.

Transport Action Ontario (TAO) strongly supports this new approach. We have long advocated for High Performance Rail (HPR) – incremental improvement of passenger rail service on existing corridors, plus improved bus feeder service. Various meetings on this topic were held earlier this year by TAO and affiliated organizations with then Transportation Minister Yurek and his staff.

With the appointment of a new Minister, the Hon. Caroline Mulroney, TAO took the opportunity to update her and her staff on our thinking for this upcoming plan. Our letter to the Minister summarized the need for a robust public transportation option, the available technical reports on HPR, the need to include VIA Rail Canada and the Federal Government in the study, and key next steps including specific service scenarios that should be studied.

Our letter to Minister Mulroney can be viewed here:

We also sent the Minister a Policy Briefing prepared by Transport Action Canada on Southwestern Ontario Rail and Bus.

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