This article continues the CityRail series, which proposes a modern regional rail system for the GTA. For more detailed information, check out the original CityRail proposal. 

CityRail is a revolutionary new proposal for transit in the GTA. It would connect more people to more places, make trips faster, and bring the GTA together in a new way. The best part is, it is entirely feasible.

CityRail is about using rail corridors that already exist to dramatically expand rapid transit in the GTA at a very reasonable cost. The GO Transit corridors would be transformed so that instead of infrequent and expensive GO trains, the entire GTA would enjoy rapid transit service much like the Toronto subway. Since the corridors are already there, there's no need for expensive tunnels. All that's needed is modern electrified trains and minor track upgrades. Better still, CityRail would mean never having to pay an extra fare to ride GO Transit again. Connections would be as seamless as they currently are between bus, subway, and streetcar on the TTC. CityRail would serve both the City of Toronto and the 905 suburbs, transforming Toronto from a transit city into a transit region.

CityRail routes and the TTC subway, cartography by Craig White

A minimum of new infrastructure would be required. GO Transit is already planning for the new tracks and electrification that CityRail would require. What we need, though, is a coherent and integrated plan. CityRail can’t be planned piecemeal. Right now, Metrolinx is planning various disconnected expansion and electrification projects with only a vague end goal of more frequent service. Instead, we need to set out, from the beginning, to design a system that meets the goals of integrated fares, high-frequency rapid transit-style service, and modern trains. It’s not about pouring concrete. Instead, it’s about a different philosophy of regional transit that no longer focuses on shuttling commuters from parking lots to downtown, but instead uses the corridors we already have for real rapid transit throughout the GTA so people can live their whole lives car free.

For a visual overview of the CityRail proposal, designer Iain M. Campbell has created a fantastic graphical presentation, worth your time to view!

CityRail involves four basic principles: frequent “turn-up-and-go” service, fare and schedule integration with other transit services, and modern electrified trains.

Frequent turn-up-and-go service

GO Transit service today is extremely limited for people not travelling to downtown Toronto for ordinary 9-to-5 jobs. On most lines, trains don’t even run outside rush hour, or on weekends. But even the new 30-minute service on the Lakeshore, which has brought a significant increase in ridership, isn’t real rapid transit. Nobody would put up with a subway train only every half hour. CityRail means true rapid transit frequencies of at least every fifteen minutes or better all day, every day. Research has shown this is the maximum amount of time for people to be able to show up at the station without worrying about a schedule. It’s even more important for people who are transferring from local buses, since nobody wants to run the risk of waiting a half hour if their bus is delayed.

Bombardier Talent 2 (Image Credit: Bombardier)

Fare Integration

CityRail can only succeed when passengers can transfer freely to connecting bus, subway, and LRT lines, like they do from the subway to TTC buses and streetcars today. The benefits would be huge. Ridership on the GO corridors would increase, which would mitigate the inevitable reduction in some fares through the introduction of a region-wide zone fare system (For more information, check out this earlier article on fare integration). Integration with TTC and other local routes would also reduce the need for parking at stations. Most importantly, it would bring rapid transit to countless areas that currently have none, even within the City of Toronto.

Weston residents know that their community is one of the most challenging in Toronto to reach by transit. A ride on the 89 bus from Weston can take three-quarters of an hour in rush hour just to get to the subway at Bloor. Still, this bus is crowded, while comparatively few people ride the GO train just a block away. This train could whisk them to Bloor in a few minutes or all the way downtown in less than twenty. So why don't they use it?

The insistence on providing service only for 9-to-5 commuters to downtown is a big part of the problem. But even if trains ran every 10 minutes all day, not many people would choose to ride them if it meant paying a $4.50 GO Train ticket on top of their TTC fare. Fare integration would bring rapid transit to an array of neighbourhoods like Weston, without the need to spend billions on tunnels and other mega-projects.

Schedule Integration

Nearly every TTC bus and streetcar route connects directly to a subway station. That means that people can easily ride from their home to the subway, take the subway across the city, and then take another bus to their final destination. That kind of well-connected network is what makes transit successful in suburban Toronto (For more information, see here).

With CityRail, it would be no different. Bus routes would be redesigned to connect with CityRail stations so that it would be like a massively expanded subway network. People would be able to get on a bus in Oakville, ride to the CityRail station, and then take it across the region to Markham, where they could take another bus to their final destination. CityRail could also act like a local rapid transit line. The Milton CityRail line would act like an east-west subway across the City of Mississauga, providing a rapid transit backbone for that city’s transit network.

Modern Electric Trains

Our GO lines use massive, double-decker trains that take a long time to load and unload. In Europe, regional rail uses lighter trains that are much more like subway trains. With many more doors than current GO trains and no steps at the entrance, these trains would dramatically reduce waiting time at Union Station, eliminating the major limitation on the capacity of the present GO network. Adding capacity through more frequency is much better for riders than merely running larger trains. It would also make the system much more wheelchair accessible. Electrified European-style trains like the Bombardier Talent 2 or the Stadler FLIRT also accelerate much faster than existing GO trains.

With CityRail trains like this, stations could be more closely spaced to attract walk-in traffic without making trips any longer than they are on the GO Train today. Antiquated North American safety regulations have long precluded the use of European trains, but regulators are finally starting to accept them here. Toronto needs to take advantage of this opening and buy these lighter, more efficient trains, instead of buying more old fashioned bi-level (double-decker) trains. The old trains do not need to be discarded, however. They would be very useful for limited stop services to outlying parts of the region, like Kitchener, Barrie and Niagara Falls, where there slow acceleration would be less of an issue.

Stadler FLIRT (Image Credit: Stadler Rail)

CityRail would serve both as local rapid transit in Toronto and 905 municipalities, and as a high quality cross-regional rapid transit service. People travelling from one part of the 905 to another would not be forced onto the crowded 400-series highways. The entire GTA would have access to high quality transit service. And it can be done at a fraction of the cost of underground rapid transit. It would transform the Greater Toronto Area into a true transit region.

What will it take to make CityRail a reality? Other CityRail articles:

Continuing the campaign for CityRail, we are pleased to announce a new Facebook group for CityRail.

Jonathan English is a doctoral student in Urban Planning at Columbia University. His blog is Transit Futures.