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(The photographer Secondarywaltz snapped this picture on May 22, 2013, of the temporary hoarding placed over the area where the Union station platform of the UP Express would be built, along with its art. This image is used in accordance with his Creative Commons License.)

(This post was crossposted to Transit Toronto)

For the past four years, I've been travelling from Kitchener to Toronto, watching fascinated as work crews tear down and rebuild the line through the city. They have been hard at work building the Union Pearson Express - a high speed shuttle service that will ferry passengers from Union Station in downtown Toronto to Pearson Airport at the west end of the city in 25 minutes.

The UPExpress has been controversial for years. There has been a lot of debate between the province of Ontario, the city of Toronto and various interest groups in between regarding who the line should be for and what it should accomplish.

Earlier this week, Metrolinx announced the long-anticipated fare structure for the service. Passengers travelling the whole line can expect to pay $27.50 if they buy tickets, or $19 if they pay by Presto card. Fares to the interim stations of Weston and Bloor are cheaper, but are still well above $10 for adults. The announcement coalesced complaints by many that the line was a white elephant, a rich man's toy train, a major piece of infrastructure where much has been spent but from which few will benefit.

So, is the UPExpress an expensive toy train? Is it a useful piece of infrastructure? Is it a vanity project? Or is it a surprising survivor in a graveyard of transit proposals that have been made but not acted on over the past two decades?

How about all of the above?

I won't bore you with the full history of the UPExpress, especially since I covered it in this article that I wrote for Transit Toronto. If you don't want to read the whole thing, the important elements to take from the UPExpress history are the following:

  1. It was conceived by federal transport minister David Collenette, and was largely seen as a legacy project. It was proposed from the get-go (around 2003) as a high-priced luxury airport shuttle that would have provided a flashy gateway for tourists arriving for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  2. It somehow survived several changes in government, and was initially a largely privately-driven investment, before it somehow found its way into the lap of the Ontario government. When the conditions required by the McGuinty Liberals caused the private partner, SNC Lavalin, to walk away, Metrolinx was given the task to build the thing.
  3. It's capital costs were largely rolled in with a major investment in the purchase and upgrade of the railway tracks from Union in the southeast to Bramalea in the northwest.
  4. Initial plans and a lack of serious consultation caused the residents of the old village of Weston to rise up in revolt. Residents strenuously objected to plans to completely shut down up to three level crossings en-route, effectively cutting the community's residents off from the area's commercial core. Literally hundreds of angry people turned out to demand answers, forcing public meetings to be shut down and rescheduled in larger venues. Local residents are still angry over a number of issues, and continue to demand that the line be strung with wires and electric trains used instead of "dirty diesels".
  5. To soothe angry residents, a number of measures were taken to reduce the impact of the new line. The tracks were buried in a tunnel through much of Weston, and two level crossings were kept open; the third remains as a pedestrian bridge. In addition, a station was added to the UPExpress run at Weston, adding three minutes to the trip.

In my opinion, $19 is not an unreasonable price to pay for a quick trip between the Toronto's airport and it's downtown, especially when you compare it against the cost of taking a taxi, or using long-term parking. And am I the only one to catch a slight inconsistency in the criticism, here: that this line is somehow a waste of money with fares that are too expensive when, in theory, those same fares are designed to ensure that the line operates without government subsidy at all? If fares were lower, wouldn't that make the line an even bigger waster of money?

I admit that It would have been nice if we'd built a subway charging TTC fares, but the UPExpress was designed from the start as a luxury airport shuttle, as seen in a number of cities worldwide that the proposal was clearly designed to mimic. It is not built to function as a commuter service. It is years too late to complain about the high fares of the line, since it's not designed to be anything else but a luxury service.

That said, I can understand the frustration that's out there. With the province of Ontario and the cities of the Greater Toronto Area arguing constantly over which subway or LRT project should get funding, and begging for assistance from the federal government, it beggars belief that this project should be the one the federal government decides to kickstart -- neither the province nor the city asked for it and, when pressed, both said they would have preferred to see an expansion of regular GO Train service to connect with a shorter (and cheaper) people-mover into the airport. However, largely due to the dogged support of... I'm not sure who, but a bunch of people starting with former federal transport minister David Collenette, the UPExpress pushed through. Why couldn't the Sheppard LRT or the Downtown Relief subway line have received similar support?

Then there was the long and turbulent history of public consultation with the communities surrounding the line. Here, we have the mix of arrogant designers presenting a controversial plan as almost a fait accompli, a beleaguered community responding with the loudest and best organized response this side of the Spadina Expressway, and politicians and planners making some good and some questionable decisions in order to try and tame the hornets' nest.

In my opinion, the most illustrative example of the best and the worst of the planning design of the UPExpress train is the stop that was built at Lawrence Avenue to serve the residents of Weston. Although Weston is served by the GO Train, when the airport express was originally conceived, there was no stop planned for there. That one was built is the boldest statement made by the line's designers that the line was supposedly built as much for the benefit for the residents of Weston as it was for downtown travellers. Where the old station used to be a single platform eked out beside a single track, the new station has multiple platforms (for GO Trains and UPExpress trains), a tunnel beneath the tracks, better connections with the TTC, and it promises to be a major transportation hub for the community

Except that the idea that the UPExpress should stop there is ludicrous. The fare between Weston and Pearson on the UPExpress is $11, assuming you have a Presto card. They don't even bother to list the fare to travel between Weston and Union, strongly suggesting they don't expect Weston residents to make such a trip.

Weston residents did not ask for fast access to Pearson Airport; they already have it in the form of Highway 409 and the Lawrence West bus. A taxicab could get them to the airport about as fast and about as expensively as the new train. What Weston residents really wanted was better transit access to the rest of the city, including the downtown, and they didn't want it to break the bank. UPExpress fails in all those respects.

Two kilometres to the south, the UPExpress line crosses over Eglinton Avenue. In 2020, the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT will open, with a stop beneath the tracks and trains ready to whisk people through a tunnel across the city. That would be an excellent stop for the UPExpress line (and there are suggestions that such a stop will open when the LRT does). Does it make sense to open such a stop and increase travel times between Union and the Airport from 25 minutes to 28? Or will an Eglinton stop cause the underused Lawrence UPExpress stop to close, even after all that money was spent to build a specialized platform that could handle the UPExpress trains?

But to truly understand and appreciate the contribution the UPExpress makes to public transit in Toronto, you have to look not at what's running on its rails, but what's happening beside its rails. Metrolinx did not spend its money building tracks for the UPExpress alone. The entire Weston Sub was torn up these past four years, and the investments are about to come on stream.

The UPExpress will run on two tracks that were strung between Union and Pearson Airport. The railway bridges over the Humber River and Weston Road used to be single-tracked; now they have four tracks. Bloor station, which used to have two modest platforms and primitive facilities, will now have a modern station building and four platforms for passengers to access. At what used to be the Strachan Avenue level crossing, four tracks are becoming eight, passing unimpeded through an underpass. That's in addition to many other widened bridges and new underpasses, and the elimination of a level crossing with the busiest Canadian Pacific railway line in eastern Canada.

More than that, Metrolinx has purchased all of the tracks running from Union Station to Bramalea and from Georgetown to Kitchener. Before construction began in 2011, GO Transit used to operate three trains in both directions between Union and Bramalea. It's likely that this service will be restored once the UPExpress is up and running. Indeed, every obstacle to operating half-hourly train service, seven days a week, between Union and Bramalea has been removed. The only question about setting up such a service is if GO Transit can find room in its budget for it.

A GO train operating through Weston station every half hour, seven days a week, able to whisk residents to Union or Brampton within 20 minutes, all for a fare of just $5.65, is far more useful a service than a $11 shuttle operating every fifteen minutes going just to the Airport. I think that if Weston residents were told that the former is what they could expect to receive by the end of 2015, they would have been a lot happier. And, ironically, they would not have needed a stop on the UPExpress to make this service a possibility.

The history of how the UPExpress came to be should be examined in every school of urban planning around the world, as it shows some of the bizarre twists and turns that planning can take. You can see the arrogance of planners who thought they could ram a service through a community without consulting them. You can see the force an aggrieved and motivated community can bring to bear. You can see how political agendas can cause some proposals to grow while others whither on the vine, and some of the silly ideas that can result from desperate attempts to placate opposition.

And it also shows that, through it all, something good can be built, quickly and relatively on budget. It shows that change can happen for the better even in all of the confusion. In the end, there is some progress and growth, even if it does sometimes seem to get lost in all the weeds.

After watching a recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the following cut scene came to mind:

After being tasered, Agent May wakes up handcuffed to a chair while a HYDRA agent stares menacingly down at her. After the usual banter, the HYDRA agent tells May that he wants information and he intends to torture it out of her.

HYDRA AGENT: I have a colleague who is an expert in making people... comply.

Agent May is suitably unimpressed.

HYDRA AGENT: But since we don't have any time...

The HYDRA agent pulls a hanging light out of its socket and breaks the bulb, leaving two exposed wires dangling free.

HYDRA AGENT: I'll just have to improvise...

The HYDRA agent touches the two exposed wires together. There's a spark and...

...and with a loud and final click, every single light and electrical appliance in the room, and possibly even the building, goes out. There's a pregnant pause.

HYDRA AGENT: Damn circuit breakers.

At which point Agent May kicks him in the nuts.

Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, December 3, Erin’s grandfather, and the kids’ only great-grandfather, passed away in hospice. He was 97.

Joseph Howard O’Connor, known to all as Howard, was my mother-in-law Rosemarie’s father. He was the head of a household of eleven children (including two sets of twins), on a South Dakotan farm that’s still within the family. He saw the Great Depression up close, saw drought and flood, and produced a family of children and grandchildren that has written speeches for George McGovern and Bill Clinton, and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

I first met Howard almost eighteen years ago, likely during a great Christmas-time family reunion when Erin showed me off to this huge Irish Catholic family that practically picked me up and turned me over in order to make sure I was worthy of dating the eldest daughter’s eldest daughter. He, with his wife Lucille, had pride of place in that gathering, clearly bathed in the wealth of the long love this family had built for each other.

To say the least, I was a little bit intimidated. I could sense the history, and it was asking a lot to try and impress the man. But he welcomed me with open arms. For all his hard work, and the resolve you needed to carry a family on a South Dakotan farm, he was warm and gregarious, eager to laugh at the stories you shared, and happy to share his own. I remember seeing him during the rehearsal dinner that my father-in-law organized on the eve of my wedding — a huge get-together where both our families turned out. My uncle Dieter (also now passed away), was sitting across from him, and I saw him and heard him laughing, hard, at the story Dieter was telling him. And in the instant, I saw the connection between them form in an instant. Respect and friendship, warmth and welcome, freely offered, and readily accepted if given. That was the man that Howard was.

I regret I did not get a chance to talk to Howard more than I did, to learn more about his story, but I’m grateful to have known him, to have listened to him, and to have had his welcome.

Funeral services are planned for 10:30 a.m. on Monday morning at St. Agnes Church in Vermillion, South Dakota. There will also be a prayer service on the Sunday evening beforehand. Unfortunately, Erin and I can’t be there, much as we’d like, but we will be there in spirit. The family requests that memorials be made to St. Agnes Charities (St. Vincent dePaul) or St Agnes Catholic Church.

Tue, Dec
2
2014

Books 26, 27 and 28

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While I consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost, it still gives me great pleasure to announce that my twenty-third, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth non-fiction book for kids arrived in my hands earlier this week. These three books, part of a series about ecosystems called “Inside Out” were produced by a British publishing company under contract with Crabtree. I had a lot of fun working on these books, and the deadline wasn’t too ridiculous.

I’ve since drafted two more books for this series (one on mountain ecosystems, and another on forest ecosystems), along with two more in the “Straight Talk About” series (one about binge drinking, and another on “dealing with a loss”). These books should debut early in 2015.

Sun, Nov
23
2014

The Machine Stops

Maybe it’s kismet, but as I write The Curator of Forgotten Things, I’ve been encountering more and more references to E.M. Forster’s Edwardian science fiction novella, The Machine Stops. This story, written in 1909 (and in the public domain; the text can be read here), is rightfully lauded for anticipating how automation and easy long-distance communication could result in humans drawing back within themselves, becoming ironically more isolated than ever before.

I’d heard of the tale before, of course, albeit through a more indirect manner. Back in my high school and university days, when being a Doctor Who fan wasn’t cool, I was an avid reader of the British magazine Dream Watch Bulletin (formerly the Doctor Who Bulletin), which branched out from covering Doctor Who and highlighted the other gems of British science fiction in film and television. An article covered an adaptation a series called Out of the Unknown (a British version of The Outer Limits) did of Forster’s work. It must have been a well written review, because I remember it to this day, decades later.

Anyway, the recent mentions sent me looking for that movie adaptation, and I ended up discovering it, and a second one.

The movie short below was produced in 2009 “a thesis project at the School of Visual Arts, NYC by twin brothers, Nathan & Adam Freise”. It’s an impressive piece of production, though I would say that the acting leaves something to be desired. At nine minutes, it doesn’t take much of your time, but barely gives the material coverage. Still, it does show these brothers have talent. Look for their names in the film industry in the future.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Out of the Unknown adaptation of The Machine Stops. E.M. Foster is credited as the story’s writer, with Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner as mere dramatists, but it shows the reverence that Cavander and Donner treats the material. The adaptation has much better actors, and a budget possibly equal to that of the 2009 short. It is also over 50 minutes long, but surprisingly watchable through that length, largely due to some interesting directorial choices. I think it’s worth your time, if you’ve got 50 minutes of it.

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