StrategyCorp January Newsletter: Wheels of Change: Transit
Diving into what today’s news means for public policy, our clients, and our world. Subscribe now.
Canada is growing, so should our transportation networks
Canada’s population is booming, growing at the fastest pace on record in the modern era. With most new residents moving to urban areas, our transportation networks have increasingly been strained with congestion, directly affecting labour mobility, the movement of goods, and our ability to live in sustainable and vibrant communities.
The most efficient way to move people is transit. A single lane of car traffic can move 1,500 to 2,000 people per hour, while light rail can move up to 15,000, and heavy rail like subways or GO can move up to 40,000. Federal and Provincial decisionmakers and big city Mayors have recognized this and are undertaking a massive program of transit expansion. Here is what is happening, and what it means.
What we’re tracking this month
A GERMAN INFLUENCE ON THE GO TRANSIT NETWORK
Metrolinx, Ontario’s public transit agency, has announced that as of January 1st 2025, it will be handing over operations, maintenance, and service planning for the GO rail network to ONxpress, the consortium tasked with building out the ambitious GO Expansion program. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway operator, is a key member of the consortium, and will bring experience planning and running rail lines that it has honed for decades across Europe.
GO Expansion is the largest infrastructure project in Canada; this means more frequent and faster electric trains, coming every 15-minutes or better, in both directions on GO’s core network. This transformation of the network from a commuter-focused system into a two-way frequent rapid transit system has many similarities to other projects such as the Paris Réseau Express Régional (RER).
What does this mean for the Toronto region and Southern Ontario?
This enhanced service, which could also be described as an ‘express surface subway’ will enable opportunities to build dense, transit-oriented complete communities surrounding GO stations. The opportunity is especially pronounced in the 905, where many GO stations are surrounded by parking lots.
These new transit-adjacent developments have the potential to pay for transit upgrades, through provincial initiatives such as the Infrastructure Ontario’s Transit Oriented Communities program, or through the municipally led new GO station program introduced in Bill 131, the Transportation for the Future Act.
HIGH FREQUENCY RAIL ROLLS ONWARDS
Canada’s ambitious yet ambiguous intercity rail project, High Frequency Rail (HFR), continues to advance with an RFP for launch in October 2023. The goal of this project is to better connect Toronto, Peterborough, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City with faster, more frequent, and electric trains, while giving VIA its own passenger-only corridor to reduce delays from slow-moving freight trains. The Federal Government hopes to select a development partner for the project by the end of 2024.
An open-ended project
The Government of Canada has taken a unique approach to HFR, by allowing for market creativity in designing the project. The procurement process has identified broad goals, including what major cities the project must serve, plus core goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and travel time. The exact project design, including specific routing, what speeds the trains will travel at, and other details on how to achieve the core goals will be left up to the bidding teams.
Ever wanted to beat traffic on the way to the cottage? By 2026, you may be able to. The Government of Ontario is advancing work to return Ontario Northland’s Northlander train, connecting Toronto Union Station to Timmins, with 14 stops including three in Muskoka. Following an order for three new trainsets from German rail manufacturer Siemens in Fall 2022, Ontario Northland released a tender for nine new pre-fabricated stations for various stops between Toronto Union and Timmins in December 2023.
The return of the Northlander will fulfill a 2018 and 2022 PC Party campaign promise to restore trains to Northern Ontario, something that northern residents have been advocating for since the service was cancelled in 2012.
Closing the last mile gap, so you can get to the lake
Of course, trains won’t be able to take you directly from Toronto’s financial district to your dock. To address the infamous transit planning issue of the ‘last mile,’ the private sector has a chance to provide creative transportation options, like ridesharing, to connect cottage goers to their final destinations when they disembark from the train.
PEEL-ING AHEAD ON LRT
In mid-January 2024, Transport Minister Prabmeet Sarkaria wrote Metrolinx to order the agency to conduct a business case to expand the under-construction Hazel McCallion (Hurontario) LRT in Peel Region. Metrolinx will analyze an extension of the route north from its current terminus at Steeles Ave into downtown Brampton, and move to re-instate the downtown Mississauga loop – which was cancelled in 2019. Whether the Province will agree to tunnel the final 3 kilometers of LRT into Brampton, as proposed by the city and set to cost $2.8 billion, is yet to be determined.
Market-driven funding for extensions?
In his letter to Metrolinx, Minister Sarkaria asked the agency to explore ‘market-driven funding strategies’ to help deliver the light rail extension. It’s possible that the Province may use a mechanism similar to the Bill 131 station contribution fee. In the meantime, we will have to wait until Metrolinx completes the analysis by February 5th.
DIGGING INTO ONTARIO LINE PROGRESS
Toronto’s next mega-transit project, the Ontario Line, continues to advance from the planning stage to construction. Metrolinx recently signed a contract with Pape North Connect to design and build a 3 kilometer section of tunnel for the Ontario Line. The consortium, which includes Webuild Inc, FCC Canada, and Arcadis Professional Services, will also build new subway stations at Pape and Cosburn.
A new gold-standard for transit procurement
The Ontario Line is being built with several contracts awarded to different consortiums, rather than a single proponent executing a mega-project. This sum-is-greater-than-the-pieces approach is meant to help control costs and timelines.
Ontario has also been using the alliance model of contracting, which features a ‘development period,’ where projects are co-designed and refined by the winning consortium and government to ensure better outcomes for all.
HOPES SPRINGS ETERNAL FOR OTTAWA’S TRILLIUM LINE
The nation’s capital is looking forward to the re-opening of one of its two transit rail lines this year. The north-south Trillium Line (Line 2) has been closed since spring of 2020 and had an initial completion target of August 2022.
The latest outlook for the diesel-train system’s expansion, which includes 16 additional kilometers of track, eight new stations, a spur to the international airport, and an original price tag of $1.6 billion — is that it will be open to riders sometime this spring.
Building public trust along with new tracks
Like its east-west counterpart whose problems spurred a provincial public inquiry, the Trillium Line is not without its own controversies. The system’s builder, AtkinsRéalis (formerly SNC-Lavalin) was advanced in the procurement process, despite some questions about its bid. While the Trillium Line expansion to the most southern edges of Ottawa will provide opportunities to boost densification around suburban stations and serve its residents, between transit controversy, rising costs, legal issues, and ongoing delays, there is still an element of public trust that needs to be rebuilt in conjunction with new rail — a necessary ingredient before upper levels of government think about investing in LRT Stage 3.
BY THE NUMBERS
With hybrid work still an option for many workers, aggregate demand for urban public transit remains below pre-pandemic levels in Canada even though population has grown substantially since. The total number of passenger trips last November represented 83.9 per cent of the level recorded in February 2020. As a result of lower ridership, transit agency operating revenues excluding subsidies have also not fully recovered.
On a regional basis, Atlantic Canada stands out as the sole region in the country were total passenger trips and operating revenues were both higher in November 2023 than in February 2020 (up 15.4 and 17 per cent respectively)
A TREND OF PUBLIC-PRIVATE COLLABORATION TO DELIVERY TRANSIT
The 2010s and 2020s have represented a major shift in transportation, where government is playing catch-up for decades of underinvestment in transit. The private sector is playing a critical role in helping to provide capacity for designing, building, executing, and realizing the benefits of these large projects. This is evident though:
- Direct input in major project design decisions in coordination with public agencies, as seen with GO Expansion, the Ontario Line, and High Frequency Rail.
- Helping to realize the spin-off benefits of transit, through building more homes near new and existing stations, and in some cases contributing financially to station construction.
- Capitalizing on synergies with transit by enabling last-mile connection options to and from transit stations.
This cycle of collaboration is expected to continue as major transit projects are rolled out, and provides an opportunity for everyone to contribute to addressing the critical challenges faced by our rapid growth, and creates a once in a generation chance to build better cities.