While major transit expansion projects like the Relief Line, Scarborough Subway Extension, and Crosstown LRT get most of the attention in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area (GTHA), there's one potential project that could have just as big of an impact—if not bigger—that is flying under the radar. It's the 407 Corridor Rail Freight Bypass, more commonly known a the Missing Link. A 2015 IBI Group Report commissioned by the City of Cambridge, the Town of Milton, the City of Mississauga, and the City of Toronto examined the feasibility of the Missing Link, and revealed how it could potentially re-organize rail patterns in the GTHA.

When GO Transit first began operations in 1967, it operated almost exclusively on tracks owned by the Canadian National Railway (CN). Later on, with the addition of the Milton Line in 1981, GO began operating on tracks owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) as well. VIA Rail was established in 1977, leaving CN and CP to operate freight trains exclusively, the two companies prioritizing their tracks for that service. GO (and later Metrolinx) subsequently began buying pieces—commonly referred to as subdivisions or "subs" in the rail industry—of these two companies' rail networks. These purchases give GO's service give greater priority, and by extension greater reliability and the potential for more frequent service.

Buying subs has its limits, however, as both CN and CP are unwilling to part with sections of track that form parts of their respective main lines through the GTHA, at least for a price that Metrolinx is willing to pay. CN's main freight line runs along a subdivision running east-west through the southern portion of York Region—the York and Halton Subs—but this line ends just south of Bramalea GO Station. From there, the main line runs through Downtown Brampton to Georgetown, where it veers south towards Milton, and eventually on to Burlington and Hamilton.

Existing GO, CN, and CP rail configuration, image courtesy IBI Group study commissioned by four municipalities

It's this section of track through Brampton that is the main issue, since that is the only portion of CN's mainline on which GO trains operate. In the image above, it's the only area on the map where the blue and green lines overlap. Both GO and CN see this stretch of track as crucial to their operations. In some instances where this overlap has been an issue, the solution for GO has been to build tracks parallel to the existing CN tracks, like was done on the Lakeshore East corridor between Pickering and Oshawa GO stations. However, given that this stretch of track passes through space-constrained Downtown Brampton, simply expanding the corridor to add new tracks isn't an easy option. So what is the best way forward?

When Highway 407 was planned, the right-of-way purchased for the highway was significantly wider than what was needed for just a highway. The ultimate vision for the corridor was for a rail or bus corridor running parallel to the highway as well. Part of this plan is coming to fruition, with the Highway 407 Transitway currently in the planning phase. The section that most concerns this rail discussion however is the section of the 407 corridor between Bramalea Rd and the Highway 401/407 interchange, a distance of approximately 18 km, shown in the image below.

The wide right-of-way of Highway 407 where the Missing Link would be built, image courtesy Google Earth

The main goal of the Missing Link is to remove freight traffic from at least one corridor on which GO operates by placing it on a dedicated freight corridor parallel to Highway 407. The number of GO corridors that will have freight traffic removed from them depends on which parties come to the table to negotiate a deal.

The most recent public announcement on the Missing Link was in June 2016, when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced an agreement in principle between CN and Metrolinx to build the Missing Link. Under this agreement, CN freight trains would continue straight from the York Sub onto the Missing Link parallel to the 407, instead of routing through Downtown Brampton, eliminating all conflicts with CN freight trains on the Kitchener GO corridor. This alone would make the Missing Link a worthwhile investment, especially in comparison to the cost and disruption of widening the rail corridor in Brampton.

Conceptual alignment of the Missing Link west of Bramalea GO

However, the importance of the Missing Link would be amplified if CP were to be included in the agreement, since unlike CN, CP currently has no freight bypass of the GTA. CP's main freight line includes the North Toronto Sub, which parallels Dupont St through Midtown Toronto, and the Galt Sub, on which the Milton Line operates. It is the Galt Sub's status as a freight main line that severely limits the operating schedule and frequency of GO service along the Milton corridor.

Including CP in the agreement would remove the bulk of the freight traffic from both the Milton corridor and the Midtown corridor, the latter of which has been identified as a potential corridor for GO service in Metrolinx's transportation master plan, The Big Move. This arrangement would theoretically allow the Milton corridor to be upgraded to Regional Express Rail (RER). This is important because despite the Milton Line's high ridership numbers, it was one of the few corridors not to be included in Metrolinx's RER plan.

GO, CN, and CP rail configuration with the Missing Link in place, image courtesy IBI Group study

However, adding CP to the agreement adds a few more hurdles to the mix. The largest hurdle is that such an agreement would require a deal in which CP would be allowed to run trains along the York Sub, which is owned by CN. CN isn't likely to like the idea that their freight trains on their track could be delayed by another company's train, and CP isn't likely to like the idea of having their main route through the GTHA being on someone else's track.

There is also the issue that the York Sub was built to only meet CN's projected train volume. It's likely that adding CP to the mix would require upgrades to the corridor (additional tracks, additional grade separations, etc). If that's the case, who pays for that? No doubt the back-room negotiations about those very issues are taking place now, but the results are unlikely to be made public until an agreement of some kind has been reached. As was mentioned earlier, to date only Metrolinx and CN have publicly agreed to anything.

The Missing Link may only add 18 km of new rail to the GTHA's already expansive rail network, but its inclusion could spawn a cascade of reorganization, one that could radically transform passenger and freight rail operations. By in essence consolidating the main lines of both major rail companies onto a single corridor, it would free up at least three major corridors for near-exclusive use by GO, with potential use by VIA as well if they should want it.

The Missing Link has support from all of the municipalities that would be directly affected, the Province, and at least one of the two major freight rail companies. Freight consolidation could potentially save billions of dollars in corridor upgrades that would otherwise be required in order for GO to achieve desirable levels of service. Instead of adding new tracks to run parallel to freight tracks, with freight operations out of the way, GO could get significantly more utilization out of the tracks that are already there. It is by far the most cost-effective way to achieve the levels of GO service the GTHA wants and needs.

You can join the discussion on the Missing Link by visiting our dedicated forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.