Big Read – In-depth look into the bright future of transit in the GTA

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. In part two of this series, let’s do the Canadian thing and compare our public transport to examples from Europe.

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

Canadians often seem like they have a desire to feel inadequate.

Despite totally different histories, growth patterns, and geography, there is still a need to compare ourselves to European counterparts when it comes to public transport.

Being aspirational is fine, but it’s often a silly exercise. Having just dunked on others, it’s time to flip-flop and say that the GO Expansion case is different, because it gives an idea of the scale of change coming to the GO Transit network.

To give a sense of the coverage GO will offer, taking a train from London to Bowmanville (which will one day become the longest east-west direction of the network) would cover around 280 kms. In the north-south direction, going from Barrie to Niagara Falls would cover around 335 kms.

The area the GO Train will cover (as planned) is roughly the same as what is known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH).

This includes not only the GTA, but Niagara Falls, Kitchener-Waterloo, Barrie and even Peterborough. The only part of the GO network that is not included is London (which does have a limited GO Train service, but that still counts).
Given the current populations and growth rates of around five per cent every five years, the 2031 GO Train service area (GGH + London) will likely be home to around 11.3 million people in 2031.

A map showing the extent of the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), which is comprised of the GTA along with all the additional municipalities that border it. The GGH is home to around 26 per cent of all Canadians and growing. (Government of Ontario image).

In comparison, the Netherlands is 312 kms in the north-south direction, and 264 kms is the east-west direction, or 41,543 kms² (the GGH has a total area of 31,562 kms², so when the London region is added in, the geographies of the Netherlands and GGH are relatively similar).

Currently, the Netherlands has a population of 17.4 million people, and given its relatively modest population growth, it will probably be around 18.4 million in 2031.

Nederland Spoorwegen (NS) is the Dutch national railway service. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, NS saw 1.3 million trips per day, which translates into 474.5 million passenger trips that year. And while NS is a national carrier, providing intercity and international service, it also takes care of all the commuter rail needs of cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.

In 2017, annual ridership on GO Trains was 57.4 million people. Based on an overall GO network growth of 5.3 per cent from fiscal year 2017-18 to 2019-20, this would put GO Train ridership for 2019 at around 60.4 million people.

Using that 2019 number, GO Train ridership works out to 5.9 trips per person in the GGH + London, while NS sees 27.3 trips per person. This means the GO Train network carries just 21.7 per cent of the passengers that NS does, relative to their populations. That is not particularly impressive, but let’s fast forward to 2031.

The table below, from the 2018 GO Expansion Full Business Case Executive Summary, shows their ridership projections for 2031, which is estimated at 178.7 million riders.

Ridership projection table from the November 2018 GO Expansion Full Business Case

Executive Summary, including breakdowns by line. (Metrolinx image)

It’s important to note that 178.7 million might actually be an underestimate.

There have been several changes since 2018, which include bringing UP into the regular GO network, higher service levels (which translates into higher ridership), and an acceleration of development and proposals around GO stations.

There is also the Milton Line, which includes projections based on the status quo. A modernized Milton service, which also serves Mississauga, would almost certainly result in an additional 20-25 million trips each year.

The actual ridership of the modernized GO network in 2031 is quite possibly going to be around 200 million and could even be a touch higher than that.

GO Trains sitting at the Whitby Rail Maintenance facility on the Lakeshore East Line
GO Expansion work continues to progress -transforming the commuter service to an all-day two-way transit network. (Metrolinx photo)

What this all means is that by 2031, per capita GO Train ridership levels for the GGH + London (at 2031 population levels) could be around 17.7 trips per person.

Given that the Netherlands already has a well-established, mature rail network, the trips per person will probably not rise much higher. If ridership on NS increased two per cent each year, and with modest population increases, NS might achieve per capita ridership rates of 30.8 trips per person.

While GO’s per capita ridership might still seem low, that would shift the GO Train network from carrying 21.7 per cent of the passengers that NS does, to 57.4 per cent of their total, in just 12 years.

Unlike NS, there will still be sizeable opportunities for growth on the GO network.

Much will depend on Metrolinx’s ability to buy right-of-ways or build dedicated tracks. This is the challenge being faced in corridors such as the Richmond Hill Line, the Kitchener to London and Hamilton to Niagara Falls sections.

And with VIA Rail also beginning a modernization campaign, this will have a ripple effect throughout the GGH and could ultimately open up GO to additional parts of Ontario.

Infrastructure upgrades are the driving force of this initial ridership boost. But there are two other factors at play in GO’s future, especially down the line. Those centre around the primary hub of the network, and how Canadian cities are developing, growing and becoming more urbanized. And one location has all these forces coming together.

Union Station

Central stations always play a critical role in regional and intercity rail networks. But even then, Union Station’s role in the modernization of the GO Transit network is much greater than it first appears.

Up until the early 2010s, Union was a rather dank, uninspiring place to be.

Sure, the Great Hall was pretty, but much of the station was dim and cramped, with the only redeeming quality being a Cinnabon and Mmmmuffins for high-sugar, super-delicious treats as you passed through.

While development north of the station has generally always been strong, the south side of tracks was different.

The waterfront, which at one point in time was the home of industry and shipping, was a veritable ghost town by the 1970s. It was little more than a sea of parking lots among vast expanses of rail yards. No doubt, many have seen the aerial comparisons, but it is worth showing them again just to get a sense of the scale of change that has happened in the area – change that still continues today.

View of downtown Toronto in the late 1970s (top image) and 2019 (bottom image). (UrbanToronto images)

In 2009, as the waterfront area was slowly redeveloping, the City of Toronto launched the Union Station Revitalization project.

Pretty much every last metre of the interior of the station has been modernized, and the remaining GO concourses and tracks will be done by 2032. The exterior has been cleaned, Bay Concourse is completely gutted and redone, York Concourse has been created, there is better passenger flow, lighting is upgraded, and many food options have been added, along with seating in all-new food courts. There is a new glass atrium in the centre of the train shed, which allows light to actually flow onto the boarding platforms.

Union Station over time. Heritage aspects of the building have remained and been renovated, where appropriate. The difference is night and day.

There were new entrances at the southern end of the station that opened onto Maple Leaf Square in the all-new South Core district. Where Union once turned its back on the waterfront, it is now fully engaged with it, along with the Scotiabank Arena, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.

Improved access at the southern side of Union Station has been crucial, not just for the vitality and viability of the station itself, but for the development of the South Core district. (Johnny Renton photo)

And in December 2020, an all-new Union Station bus terminal opened, which meant that intercity buses no longer used a separate, somewhat dilapidated facility a few blocks away. They, like GO buses, are now part of the Union hub.

While the bus terminal may not have its own food court, one can walk indoors, for just a minute or two, to either the Bay or York Concourse to grab a bite to eat there – just as rail, streetcar or subway passengers might do.

Waiting area for the new Union Station bus terminal. It might not be fancy, but its location within the Union complex means GO bus and other intercity bus services are now equals among trains, the subway and streetcar connections. (Metrolinx image)

The tracks themselves have been subject to modernization as well. Switches and signals have been upgraded to accommodate more trains. And on Feb. 16, 2022, the expansion of Union Station’s platforms officially began.

This will get rid of narrow, cramped platforms, and elevate them to a wider, more spacious standard common in most European rail stations. It is a small but absolutely essential change to enhance passenger comfort, and allow for safer, faster boarding to get trains in and out of the station quickly.

Current Union Station platforms (top image), and artist rendering of redesigned Union Station (bottom image). (Metrolinx images)

In total, around $2-$2.5 billion will be spent to modernize Union Station, from top to bottom, inside the station and out, and on the tracks and signals leading up to and through the station. 

That might seem like a lot, but consider this: Union Station already sees more trains every day than it has at any point in its history, even during the height of intercity rail travel in the 1940s.

The plan to quadruple that by 2032 simply would not be possible without these upgrades.

Two other elements are important to Union’s role in the growth of the GO Train network. The first is due to Toronto having been lucky enough to end up with a single, central, non-terminal station used by all passenger rail services (the name Union comes from the unification of various passenger rail companies into one station).

At Union Station, trains can drive through without backing up, and transfers to services like GO and VIA are made easy. In comparison, cities like New York, London and Paris have two or more train stations, and transfers can mean taking a subway across the city.

With connections to buses, the Yonge-University subway, UP, and a few streetcar lines, Union provides arriving passengers with transportation options that make public transport desirable. It is everything a fully inter-model transportation hub should be.

Platforms 20/21 at Union Station. (Metrolinx photo)

Build it and they will come

The final element to GO’s future success goes beyond transportation and into development.

As seen above, the growth around Union Station over the past decades has been extraordinary. Only Vancouver can rival the trend-setting that Toronto’s central district has had on the urban renaissance taking place in many Canadian cities. It has created new destinations, like offices, to attract people to the core, along with tens of thousands of places for people to live. And it has set a new standard for the kind of development that is taking place around other GO stations (and rapid transit stations in general).

For much of its life, GO Train stations were typically surrounded by parking lots and giant parking garages – a legacy that led to Metrolinx/GO Transit becoming one of the largest parking lot operators in North America. Even Union Station itself was largely devoid of people actually living nearby (the remarkable St. Lawrence neighbourhood being an exception).

This is changing. Existing GO stations within Toronto are leading the way when it comes to feeling new development. New SmartTrack stations at King-Liberty and St. Clair-Old Weston will take advantage of growth already underway.

Metrolinx has also started to leverage the demand for property next to GO stations.

The Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) program is one that will see developers cover the cost of new or upgraded stations, in exchange for better transit access, and ultimately provide more housing options near transit.

The new East Harbour station and upgrades to Mimico station are being delivered through this program. Metrolinx is also exploring opportunities to build four proposed stations along the Bowmanville Extension and the Park Lawn station through the TOC program.

Development patterns do not change overnight. Projects take time to design, get approved, sell, and ultimately build. It will likely take two decades before the full impact of development around GO stations is seen.

But every new home that goes up within walking or biking distance almost certainly adds more ridership to the GO network. Every rapid transit line that feeds a GO station makes taking the train that much more convenient.

TOC aims to develop stations that are close to other transit stops, making it easier to travel. (Metrolinx photo)

And as that development pattern takes hold, it has the potential to bring over one million additional people within walking distance of a GO station by 2040, creating an entirely new type of rider that will dramatically boost passenger levels. In fact, if those one million people took just two round trip rides on a GO Train each month, that alone would boost ridership by 48 million trips a year.

To some, the idea that one million additional people could live within walking distance of a GO station by 2040 might sound far-fetched. But this is actually quite likely.

But what about people who are not travelling downtown?

Often when there is organizational change, the results are not much better than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The case of GO Transit and Metrolinx is an exception, and it is as much a part of the future success of the GO Train network as the investments in infrastructure are.

Prior to 2008, you had two distinct types of transit agencies in the GTA: municipal agencies, like the TTC or Durham Transit, which oversaw buses, streetcars, and local rapid transit; and GO Transit, which looked after regional trains and buses.

One of the challenges faced is that municipalities were no longer separate and independent when it came to transit. The Yonge-University subway lines were being pushed into the 905. Destinations, like Pearson International Airport, which is in Mississauga, needed to be as well connected into the Toronto Transit System as it was into Peel’s.

Metrolinx was thus created as a regional transit agency with a much larger mandate. It assumed the operations of GO, as well as taking over responsibility for projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown, Hurontario LRT, Finch West LRT, and Hamilton LRT, to name a few.

Image shows a line of LRVs.
76 vehicles reporting for duty on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. (Metrolinx photo)

Why does this matter? Metrolinx has paid close attention to integrating its transit projects. When the Crosstown was designed, it included, from day one, new stations on the GO Kitchener and GO Barrie lines, creating easy transfer points between GO trains and the new LRT line.

The same is true of the upcoming Ontario Line, which will have a station at the upcoming East Harbour Transit Hub , just east of Union Station, and one at an all-new Exhibition Station to the west. Metrolinx can better facilitate the region’s interest in exploring ways to connect more transit to Toronto Pearson Airport.  Which allows for better coordination with VIA Rail, and the transit services run by the municipalities.

This establishment of Metrolinx, along with a much larger mandate, ultimately meant that GO Trains were no longer going to be an island unto themselves. It creates what Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster calls “the network effect,” where increased connections create better options and services for customers.

The rising tide of an LRT line helps do the same for the GO lines it is connected to. Without a regional authority operating across more than a dozen municipalities, public transport integration in the rapidly growing GTA would devolve into a nightmare.

A GO Train departing from Union Station. (Metrolinx photo)

This coordination, and new approach to what the GO Train network can be, is helping to open up the service to all-new travel options.

Weekend trains to Hamilton and Niagara create steady flows of people out of Toronto.

Someone who lives next to Kennedy station could opt to take a couple subway lines to get to a Raptors game, or they will be able to take GO as an equally viable, and likely faster option.

When GO Trains become part of local travel options in the same way streetcars, subways and LRTs are, it fundamentally changes the value of the service to people.

Next stop, the rest of Ontario

As it stands today, GO is still largely a GTA service.

However, service to Niagara Falls and London, as limited as they are, is pushing GO closer to being a provincial train service. With VIA moving forward with its High Frequency Rail program, it will start to reshape the Ontario passenger rail landscape in rather interesting ways.

Metrolinx has also been supporting Ontario Northland on the proposed train service from Toronto to Timmins via North Bay. That might be as far as any kind of partnership between the two agencies goes. But the rebooting of Ontario Northland rail service from Toronto, just as the GO network is about to be modernized, does leave the door open for the agencies to work together in some capacity.

Katelyn Drysdale is seen here identifying a ‘good spot’ as well as pointing and calling ‘clear right, clear left’ before opening the remaining doors of the train for passengers. (Nitish Bissonauth photo)

And even without that grander outlook on paper, around 2032, the GO Train network will look and function, like no other in North America.

For many people, it will have seemed to sneak up out of nowhere. But in fact, it was a highly calculated, carefully thought-out series of hundreds of incremental projects over the course of two and a half decades that will have gotten it there. It is a model that other cities would do well to understand and emulate. And it has the potential to start rivalling some of the European networks many people in Canada look up to.

By 2040, GO’s rail network could reasonably approach per-capita ridership levels that are 80 per cent of that of the NS; an achievement few would have thought possible even a decade ago.

Incrementalism can be a powerful tool when it comes to building modern passenger rail in North America. A single-track line is fine as an interim solution, or at the end of a line before rural landscapes turn to uninhabited hinterland. But to make this strategy work, investments need to be made, even for small projects, that accommodate the future, as well as current needs. And no other agency has done this as well as Metrolinx has.

In the next part of this big read series, the full-scale investments in GO’s modernization as well as other public transport projects are having on urban development around their stations will be explored.

Story by Johnny Renton, guest contributor