GO RER (Regional Express Rail) is the biggest transit project underway in the Toronto region today, despite which it has mostly flown under the radar of local transit discussion. To that end, UrbanToronto sat down with new Metrolinx President and CEO Phil Verster to discuss the RER project, hoping to glean new details on both the technical and fare aspects envisioned for the project. 

Phil Verster, Metrolinx President and CEOPhil Verster, image courtesy of Metrolinx

GO RER will be a gigantic expansion of rapid transit throughout the GTA, with a gradual increase from 1,500 trains per week on GO Transit currently, to an envisioned 6,000 trains per week. This means something like 15-minute all-day service on most GO corridors. Verster describes a plan to shift from the current one-dimensional system to a three-dimensional system serving multiple types of trips.

Today, GO rail is almost exclusively a peak-period commuter service to downtown Toronto—87 to 89 percent of riders have Union as their origin or destination, Verster said. The second dimension, as he explains it, will use bi-directional frequent service throughout the day to enable “point-to-point commutes between any of the stations and cities on the GO corridor.” The third dimension is multi-modality, meaning that GO RER would be embedded within the broader regional transit network of subways, LRT, and buses, through ease of connections and a revamped fare structure.

According to Verster, the proposed system would still be somewhat different from German S-Bahn or French RER systems, but it would share most of their essential characteristics. GO RER lines would be more like a subway, rather than the limited commuter services they are today.

Metrolinx Draft 2041 Regional Transportation Plan: Existing and In Delivery Regional Rail and Rapid Transit Projects. Source: Metrolinx.

At the heart of the GO RER network is Union Station. This is also its most significant choke point. At UrbanToronto, I have previously written about the issues with Union Station—in particular, the narrow platforms and access stairs—which result in serious congestion issues and limited capacity. “For us at Union, the bottleneck is not technically in moving trains,” Verster said. “The bottleneck is really the narrowness of platforms and the pedestrian flows off trains onto concourses and out of the station.” Union Station has nine access tracks from the west, and room for nine tracks from the east—more track capacity than all of the Paris RER lines combined (they move more than 13 times as many people as GO). Modernizing Union would provide all the capacity that could foreseeably be required, without the need for major new infrastructure.

Crowded Union Station Platform, TorontoCrowded Union Station Platform, image by UT Forum contributor TOareafan

Though additional stairs have been added with the completion of the York concourse, most platforms remain in their 1927 configuration, even including platforms that were originally designed for loading mail. For modern international stations, a platform width of 10 metres is generally considered to be standard; at Union, most platforms are five metres or even less. Verster argued that rebuilding the station to have wider platforms, combined with wider stairs and a wider walkway along the platform past the stairwells, will bring considerable safety as well as efficiency improvements. Additionally, he discussed plans to raise platforms to be level with the train doors, citing a statistic that level boarding results in a 90 percent decrease in boarding-related safety incidents. Level platforms also dramatically speed loading and unloading along the whole line. With level boarding, “you have much more operation flexibility and much speedier dwell times at stations. When you reduce dwell time, you speed up the whole journey. And 30 seconds at a station and ten station stops means five minutes on a journey, which is worth gold.”

These new approaches will first be tried on a new southern platform at Union, which will be followed by gradual widening and improvement of all the other platforms at the station between now and 2025. 

Modern Regional Rail Platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, image by Martin FalbisonerModern Regional Rail Platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, image by Martin Falbisoner

The other key constraint at Union is the complexity of train movements through the station. Rather than each route operating on dedicated, direct tracks through the station (like the subway), most trains move across several tracks, sometimes blocking other trains from entering or leaving the station. They must crawl at a snail’s pace through the many switches, which further reduces capacity. Most trains, the Lakeshore route aside, also terminate and turn around at Union. The time required to carry out the safety procedures to turn a train forces long waits, all the while taking up track space on the most valuable real estate in the city. In response to this, Verster described “working out our train plan to be such that we can pair services coming from the west of Union with services that go to the east, so that by pairing the services appropriately relative to the service intensity and the service plan, we can have a minimized number of crossing moves.” As an example, “if we have services from the Barrie corridor not crossing over all the way to Lakeshore East,” he said, “then we don’t have an X formation of services ... from the Lakeshore West corridor that may be going up on the Stouffville or Richmond Hill line.”

In effect, GO RER would mimic overseas regional rail systems, with trains running from one side of the region to the other through downtown along dedicated track paths, which Verster says would “greatly add to our capacity through the corridor.” This problem, and possible solutions, was discussed in greater detail in an earlier article.

It is frankly exciting to hear a Metrolinx head talking in detail about finally developing clear plans to resolve these longstanding obstacles that stand in the way of real regional rail service.

Verster described Metrolinx and Mayor Tory’s aspiration as being “fare equivalency” for point-to-point trips between transit modes. In other words, a subway ride from Vaughan to downtown would cost the same as a similar ride on the GO Barrie line. However, when asked about a rider transferring from a TTC bus to RER at Weston to go downtown, Verster suggested that they would still pay the $1.50 co-fare that was recently implemented. Though the equivalency proposal is a positive step, such a system ignores what makes transit successful in the suburban 416: close integration between bus and subway. At most suburban subway stations, the vast majority of riders arrive by bus rather than walking in. That means that immediate density around stations is relatively unimportant as long as they have good bus connections. For example, York Mills is one of the subway’s busier stations, even though it is surrounded by estate homes and a golf course, because it connects to two busy bus routes. Key to making this system work, however, is a common fare. If riders had to pay an extra $1.50 every time they transferred from the subway to the bus, TTC ridership in the suburbs would be far lower than it is today. If GO RER is to be a real part of the city’s rapid transit system, as Verster clearly aspires, governments must make the operating funding available to enable a free transfer from a TTC bus to RER, just as it is from TTC bus to subway.

Verster explained that GO RER will be developed as a public-private design-build-finance-operate-maintain partnership, rather than Metrolinx developing the expertise in-house. The private partner consortium that will be building and operating the RER system will make many of the key decisions, particularly on technology and the trains themselves. “We are turning to the market and we’re being very flexible in terms of what the market can offer us on RER,” he said, “to build a network, to build a fleet, and to build a service formula that require our timetable commitments.”

One of the key questions for RER is the trains themselves. Today, GO operates an exclusive fleet of diesel-locomotive-hauled bilevel cars. Most international regional rail operations use electric multiple units (EMUs), owing to their rapid acceleration and braking, which shortens journeys and enables trains to run more closely together. Verster explained that EMUs also offer far more flexibility in terms of shortening trains to match capacity to demand in off-peak periods. There are significant performance differences between EMUs and the current bilevel trains, even if the latter are hauled by electric locomotives. Mixing trains that have different performance adds complexity to signalling and infrastructure planning. Infrastructure designed for vehicles with limited performance (freight trains are also a problem in this regard) is considerably more expensive than infrastructure designed exclusively for high-performance EMUs. However, as Verster explained, it would likely be cost-prohibitive to entirely replace GO’s enormous fleet of 1,000 bilevel cars. He did leave open the possibility of a different approach, since the final decision on the fleet composition will be in the hands of Metrolinx’s private partner.

There remain some other significant questions that the private consortium will need to answer. The bilevels have much lower door levels than standard international regional rail trains. Now that platforms are being raised to match the bilevel floors, will GO RER use unique, custom EMUs to match these floor levels? Will some of the platforms be further raised when they arrive? Or will non-level boarding be accepted on the EMUs, at least temporarily? How will the signalling and infrastructure be built to handle very different types of trains without unduly reducing capacity or adding to construction cost? Will a modern international-standard signalling system, like ERTMS, be acquired, given that traditional North American mainline signalling systems are not particularly well-adapted for rapid transit operation? Most important, however, is a question that can only be answered by governments: can a fare structure be developed so that transferring from bus to RER is as simple and costless as transferring from TTC bus to subway is today, so that the RER can truly become a rapid transit backbone for the region? 

GO RER has transformative potential for the region. The refinement of plans that has been occurring, particularly since the arrival of Phil Verster, is a welcome sign that progress is being made in delivering a complex project that is unprecedented in North America. UrbanToronto will keep you updated as further details emerge.

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Jonathan English (@EnglishRail) is a PhD Candidate in Urban Transportation Planning at Columbia University in New York. He lives in Toronto. His blog is Transit Futures.