Sun, May

The Pearson-Union Rail Link

Sun, May 25, 2003


It's a project that nobody wanted, but Ottawa decided we should have.

I'm talking about the proposed high-speed rail link between Union Station in downtown Toronto and Pearson International Airport in Toronto's western suburbs. It's been the pet project of Federal Transport Minister David Collenette for the past several years. In a sea of rapid transit proposals, it's one that popped out of nowhere. It might also be the only one in the near future that actually gets built.

David Collenette, you see, has a vision. He sees business travellers checking out of their downtown hotels and walking to the city's picturesque and historic Union Station. He sees them checking their luggage at special counters, buying train and plane tickets, clearing customs and then stepping aboard a sleek, high-speed, high tech train that whispers out of the station and along pristinely maintained track to a stop atop the super terminal building at Pearson International Airport twenty minutes later. From there, it would be a short walk to their flight. What better way for visitors to experience Toronto, rather than being stuck in traffic on a limousine or a diesel bus.

But for Toronto planners, and the provincial politicians who have to fund their ideas, this is not a vision they share. For one thing, of all the people coming through Toronto's international airport, only 17% head downtown. For another, the city and the province are grappling with proposals that affect more travellers, and alter the character of the urban region to a greater degree. The Sheppard subway needs to be completed, and what about the proposed subway extensions into York Region? Or more private right-of-ways on Toronto's beleagured surface routes? Or even (now, here's a novel idea) ensuring that enough money is around for the TTC and :GO Transit: to keep the services they've already got operating in good order?

And what is the Federal government doing getting involved with public transit, anyway? Isn't that unconstitutional?

Actually, it is. Under Canada's constitution, municipal issues are strictly the realm of the province. Ottawa has rarely, if ever, gotten involved -- and when it does, it has to bring its own money. That's what makes the Pearson rail link project perplexing to planners. In a battle for dollars between Province and City, where planners have proposed dozens of necessary subway and commuter rail expansion projects, to have the feds step in and propose something that, thus far, nobody else has asked for, makes both sides in the battle stop and stare with mouths agape.

Certainly there is considerable prestige in having a rapid rail link between one's airport and one's centre city, and certainly there are riders to be gained in building to the airport, but if the Feds really wanted to help the Greater Toronto Area out, why not give money to something higher on the city's priority list? And why spend so much of it when it could be done cheaper by transit agencies already in place?

Soon after the proposal for a rail link came forward, :GO Transit: said that they could build and operate such a line for about $30 million, using tracks that are already in place, and equipment that could be easily bought, serving a new station linked to the airport by a people mover. Sure, it wouldn't be fancy, but it would be faster and better smelling than a bus. It could be cheap, and it would be of use to more people.

Instead of spending all that money to build a new rail line directly into the airport, :GO Transit: would have the airport come to the nearest GO station. GO's upgraded line would have more intermediate stops, opening up the airport not only to the people using Union station, but those folks living in the northwestern quadrant of the city, and in the suburbs beyond. The northern part of Etobicoke, where most of this line runs, is far from any subway route, but very close to Highway 401 (it's no wonder the TTC is losing the battle for riders to the automobile here). With such a line, you'd be driving a rapid transit stake into the heart of the northwestern suburbs' car dependency. That cheap subway line we talked about in the last post could be just the ticket. People could get to the airport, or the downtown, or such exotic places as Etobicoke, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown... With the proper inter-city rail connections, even Kitchener, Guelph and London become available!

No, says Mr. Collenette; not good enough. Proposals on the table call for new tracks, "high speed" trains, and a direct connection with the airport with at most two stops in between (one by a stop on the Bloor-Danforth subway and the other to connect to inter-city trains coming in from the west). The total cost of this project: somewhere between $300 million and $500 million. So what if there are already privately run express buses which do this? So what if the fares for the new line are $20 each way instead of $3 (under :GO Transit:), or $2.25 (under the TTC).

However, delve deeper into this proposal, and you start to see where David Collenette is coming from. The new tracks should be capable of handling high speed trains, he says, not commuter rail cars. And Union Station is on the main line between Toronto and Montreal -- the likely stomping ground of a Canadian TGV, should Bombardier find four billion dollars in the folds of its couch. Dorval, Montreal's busiest airport, is on this same line. The current expansion to Pearson Airport will allow it to handle as many as 55 million passengers per year by 2015 -- a capacity that would be met just three years later. What's to be done then? Build a controversial second airport? Or perhaps route passengers off of the busy Toronto-Montreal corridor onto Pearson-Union-Dorval-Montreal TGVs that fly almost as fast?

This is what makes the Pearson-Union rail line a national concern, as opposed to provincial or municipal: Mr. Collenette is not looking out for Toronto commuters, but long-distance travellers to and from Toronto. In his eyes, maintaining the flow of goods along the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor trumps the movement of commuters moving between downtown Toronto and the city's northwestern suburbs. It's an arguable point, but a valid one.

It's a shame that municipal, provincial and federal interests can't coincide on this project. As a result of this clash between these three legitimate interests, somebody is going to lose out. We are getting an improvement to the public transportation picture, but it would have been nice if all the parties had really put their heads together and came up with something that served multiple purposes.

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