Big Read – Take a deep dive into the GTA’s transit history and a glimpse at the future

Metrolinx News has teamed up with Johnny Renton, a local transit advocate and blogger, to share his insights on how two decades of quiet incrementalism set the stage for the impending transformation of the GO Train network into the most modern passenger rail system in North America.

The original version of this story first appeared on Johnny Renton’s blog in March 2022.

When most people hear about transit projects, they tend to be the largest, flashiest, and consequently, most expensive ones.

The mega projects, like Skytrain extensions in Vancouver or new subway lines in Toronto, are eye-catching for their audacity, size and the impact they will have on the cities. But sometimes massive public transport network changes are the result of dozens, even hundreds, of smaller and often unnoticed projects that, over time, add up to radical change.

For 55 years, GO Trains have been shuttling commuters across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The service is about as utilitarian as you can get. The now-famous bi-level cars were not designed with aesthetics in mind, to put it politely; it was about maximizing capacity. Stations were simple and barebones, with more attention being paid to parking than passenger comfort.

The green and white trains may be a staple for those living in the GTA, but few will wax poetically about the style and sophistication of GO Trains (save its iconic logo).

However, by the end of the 2020s, much of the service, and the infrastructure, will bear little resemblance to what it looked like at the start of the 2000s.

Its transformation can even be seen today, as it reaches beyond the GTA and is on the borderline of becoming not just a regional network, but a provincial one.

By the end of the decade, it will become North America’s most modern passenger rail network – and the story of how that was accomplished is fascinating, instructive and under-appreciated.

The Georgetown South Corridor (part of the Kitchener GO Line) where it crosses Eglinton Avenue, as it was in Sept 2009 (top image), and June 2019 (bottom image). (Google Earth image)

GO TRIP

It was on May 23, 1967, that GO started passenger rail service on the Lakeshore Line from Pickering to Burlington.

It was a low-cost experiment ($9.2 million in 1967, which is around $75 million today) to see if rail service could help accommodate the growing commuter traffic in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Money was spent on some new locomotives and passenger cars, bus shelters to serve as ‘stations,’ and little more with the trains being tossed down an existing rail line along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

It proved successful, and within four months, service went from nine trains a day in each direction during weekdays to 22.

A photo showing what GO service looked like in 1971. (William Mewes photo)

From its opening to the start of the 2000s, GO gradually expanded service onto other lines.

In most cases it was just a few trains a day during the week, with no service on the weekend. Trains mostly ran on tracks owned and used by freight companies like CN or Canadian Pacific, and this severely restricted opportunities for service increases. While there are aspects of the first 38 years that some might find interesting, it is in 2005 when the story of modern-day GO really begins to take shape.

In 2005, GO TRIP was announced. It was a $1 billion (in 2005 dollars) investment in GO Train infrastructure and facilitated the first rail-to-rail grade separations, added track to parts of the network, and helped usher in some new line extensions. GO TRIP was a relatively modest investment, but it was also the largest one up to that point.

The West Toronto Diamond as it was when the two rail lines crossed level with each other (top image) and once the two lines had been grade separated (bottom image). (Canadian Consulting Engineer photo)

The GO TRIP initiative also set in motion a pattern of incrementalism that would be central to GO Train growth.

Removing level crossings and replacing them with over- or under-passes is the kind of low-key work that GO would undertake for well over a decade, and still continues to do today in some regards.

The projects were relatively small, so they typically flew under the public’s radar, except for people living in the immediate area. But their importance cannot be understated. Grade separations allow for safer, faster, and more reliable train service. And as these projects were done, they also planned for the future.

If a line was going to have a second track in a decade or two, bridges would be built to that standard so that there would be no need to go back and ‘upgrade’ those crossings at a later date.

Despite an often-seen tendency to save money today, even though it can push up overall costs up when completed down the line, GO by and large bucked this trend.

GO continued its incremental approach in other ways as well.

They would purchase rail corridors, as they became available, or when the price was right. This is critical as once GO owned a corridor, it could upgrade tracks solely for its own benefit, and have full control of how and when many trains were run. Sometimes it was simply adding a siding to allow for a little more capacity and reliability, and other times it meant double tracking for some distance, or in the case of the busy Lakeshore corridor, adding a third or fourth track where needed.

When the new Whitby Rail Maintenance Facility in Durham Region was constructed, it was built in a way that it could quickly accommodate electrification.

Anyone taking a GO Train past the facility can see the concrete pillars just waiting for the masts, along with other design details, that will accommodate the overhead wires that are coming in the future.

Perhaps the best way to understand the approach taken is with the below map. It shows all the projects undertaken by GO from 2006 to 2019.

While there were some sizeable projects, like the Georgetown South corridor upgrade, it was mostly a series of smaller individual projects that added up to the much larger network change.

And then there are the Union Station upgrades, which will be discussed later, which are some of the most important elements of the GO Expansion strategy. A 20-year project in itself, the transformation of this hub is both remarkable and absolutely critical to the future success of GO, and public transport in Toronto in general.

2019 was a turning point in the story of GO.

At that point, the focus was on completing projects underway, and starting to deliver increased service. While there were many small increases in this time, some stand out. Jan. 7, 2019 saw the introduction of one round trip, each weekday, from Union to Niagara Falls, marking the service’s move past seasonal service. In August 2019, 15-minute service, for most of the day, was introduced on the Lakeshore line. On Aug. 7, 2021, GO also introduced an hourly service to Hamilton’s West Harbour station. And to many people’s surprise, on Oct. 18, 2021, GO introduced one weekday round trip to London, Ontario.

However, this didn’t mean the end of infrastructure investments. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Next stop, the big show

Transit agencies love releasing big, bold visions of the future.

They draw all kinds of lines on a map, create fancy renderings, and show a future version of urban travel that feels seamless and idyllic. GO was great at this in the ’70s and early ’80s – there was the GO Urban plan, a network of rapid transit lines in Toronto, based on maglev technology. There was also the GO ALRT network of the late ’70s, based on the ICTS technology that would one day power the Scarborough RT and Skytrain in Vancouver.

Both of those plans went nowhere, and GO scaled back its ambitions, focusing on traditional commuter/passenger rail systems.

In 1978, GO’s direction was, for better or for worse, secured as a traditional commuter service as it introduced the use of bi-level coaches. It would be many decades before the slightest deviations from this strategy would be seen.

Not only was the bi-level design first used by GO but they would eventually be used in dozens of cities all across North America.  (Metrolinx photos).

In 2008, GO resurrected the tradition of overly ambitious plans in the form of ‘The Big Move’.

It was a bold, sweeping vision for what the network would look like in a few decades.

Lines would be electrified and there would be 6,000 trains heading to Union Station each week, versus the 1,000 or so at the time. It would be faster, more frequent, more modern, and serve more destinations both within and outside of the GTA. It was a real beauty.

Then something funny happened. The plan actually started to pan out.

By the mid-2010s, there was a cultural shift taking place.

Public support for large-scale transit projects was growing. It didn’t just take place in Toronto, but also in cities like Vancouver, Ottawa, and even unlikely candidates such as Kitchener-Waterloo.

GO would still lag behind a little, as the initial focus remained on more local services. But eventually, the regional needs to become a top priority as well, and GO was well-positioned to take advantage of that growing opportunity.

New projects were starting every year since 2005, corridors were being scooped up as they became available, and slowly but surely, the seeds for monumental change were being laid.

Artist rendering of an electric GO Train. (Metrolinx image)

Smaller-scale GO projects were undertaken or had just begun, like the Davenport Diamond grade separation, upgrades to the Bayview Junction, pocket track upgrades at Aldershot GO Station (which are allowing drastically increased service to Hamilton), the Lakeshore West and East upgrade programs, and additional tracks in the Kitchener GO Line.

These works followed in the GO tradition of quiet incrementalism. But it was no longer about aiming for a target a decade or two out. These were, in many cases, the final rehearsals and tune-ups before the big show.

And in 2022, that big moment arrived. Several new projects have, or will, start construction that not only ratchet up the scale of investment in the GO Train network, but will leave many parts of the network electrified, and fully modernized.

The continued upgrades to Union Station will expand waiting platforms and finishes its transformation into a high-capacity passenger rail and intermodal transit hub. Additional stations within Toronto proper will help transform GO into a real inner-city transit alternative for the city, as well as benefiting regional and inter-city services.

And then there’s the showstopper: the GO Expansion ON-Corridor upgrade program. A multi-billion undertaking, the project isn’t just the largest in GO’s history, but the single largest public transport project ever undertaken in Canada.

What will result from this project is substantial: 200 km of new track across the existing network to double, triple, or quadruple track corridors, and over 650 km of electrified track (which will result in significant portions of the network being electrified).

This means a switch to electric locomotives, which together with signal and track upgrades, will radically decrease travel times on many parts of the network. In mid-April, Metrolinx released even more details, including that some lines will have service as frequent as every six minutes, during peak times.

This will mean that Union Station could see 50-60 trains an hour during its busiest time, and provide a much more comfortable, accessible and safer experience for passengers, even with the radically increased passenger numbers.

In just under two-and-a-half years, during a pandemic, the amount of work being undertaken, and the continued use of small, incremental projects, is pretty remarkable.

GO Train sitting in a trainyard. (Metrolinx photo)

In late March 2022, news came out that ground had broken on the Ontario Line, starting with the new Exhibition Station that will serve both the new subway line as well as GO, and there have been more announcements since then.

Staying on top of the news means checking for updates daily, not monthly or yearly – this really illustrates the scale of the combined projects.

The end result will see most lines (except for Milton and Richmond Hill) having all-day, two-way, 15-minute service, with some sections being even more frequent. Travel times in most cases will be reduced, as the new electric locomotives will accelerate faster and pull fewer cars, all across upgraded infrastructure.

Remarkably, this isn’t all that is on GO’s radar. Small but important projects, like adding a pocket track at West Harbour station in Hamilton, are likely to happen in a few years, which will allow for faster trips to Niagara Falls, and perhaps open up increased service opportunities.

Because the GO network only encompasses a small part of Southern Ontario, it could be easy to think the geographic reach is not that great. Sometimes it can be easy to forget just how vast Canada is, even in the most populated parts of the country. In fact, the GO network is set to cover an area almost equal to that of a small European country.

In the next part of this series, not only will the physical scale of GO Expansion be explored in detail, but so too will the scale of modernization that is set to take place.

Story by Johnny Renton, guest contributor