Let’s start building transit people will actually use

OPINION: The Ontario government has outlined its vision for transportation networks in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. But transit users need more than colourful lines on a map
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 06, 2021
The province has indicated that it remains committed to 15-minute service on the core GO Train network. (iStock/Elijah-Lovkoff)



Suddenly, there’s a flurry of transit and transportation announcements from both levels of government. This must mean that the pandemic is over or maybe that elections are coming in the next 12 months. To be very clear, the pandemic isn’t over. But, come summertime, governments love nothing more than cutting ribbons — or announcing that they’ve started a consultation process to someday deliver ribbons that they will, indeed, cut — so here we are.

Earlier today in Quebec City, federal transportation minister Omar Alghabra announced that the federal government will begin the procurement process to actually build a higher-frequency train line between Quebec City and Toronto (via Montreal and Ottawa). We’ve covered VIA Rail’s proposal for high-frequency rail service before here at TVO.org — long enough ago that Justin Trudeau was then re-acquainting himself with the Prime Minister’s Office, having just led his party to its 2015 win. In short: while it won’t please the purists who believe that Canada needs Japanese-style high-speed rail (and nothing less), there’s a lot going for the high-frequency-rail vision of faster, more reliable trains operating such that people have as much as three times as many opportunities to catch a ride.

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Of course, precisely because it is an election season, voters are within their rights to be skeptical about claims that better trains are here again. Here in Ontario, the Liberals played this game twice; first in 2014 and then again in 2018, they promised high-speed rail between Toronto and London. That plan evaporated when the Liberals were defeated and the Tories replaced them. Nevertheless, the high-frequency rail proposed by the federal Liberals today has a lot going for it that the high-speed rail plan didn’t —  namely that it’s substantially more achievable in the Canadian context.

Rather than offer some gold-plated vision of supertrains (or, God help us all, Hyperloops)  whisking travellers from Toronto to Quebec at cornea-flattening speeds, the federal government is basically proposing to modestly improve the rail service between the four big cities in the busiest travel corridor in the country with well-understood, off-the-shelf technology. Indeed, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the proposal amounts to restoring service to levels that were easily achievable in the 1970s.

The biggest change being proposed is not the technology, but the reliability and the frequency. To put it another way: if this ever actually gets built, these trains may not be as fast as international comparators, but they’ll be vastly more useful than VIA is today.

That’s a concept that’s been largely absent from transit planning in Ontario for the past several years. Premier Doug Ford has been nothing if not enthusiastic about transit-building in Toronto, spending lavishly on projects that meet his specific aesthetic concerns (burying the Eglinton West LRT extension so that it doesn’t disturb the motorists of Etobicoke, for example). One of the few substantial improvements in actual operations of transit in the city was the decision to buy 60 more new streetcars earlier this year. The addition to the city’s streetcar fleet was something that many transit advocates had been calling for to shorten wait times (there’s that frequency issue, again), but the announcement almost certainly had more to do with the opportunity to drop a pile more money into the Alstom (formerly Bombardier) assembly plant in Thunder Bay.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government released a discussion paper for planning transportation in the Greater Golden Horseshoe out to 2051, and while it’s excellent if your idea of transit planning is colourful lines on a map, if you’re looking for more concrete service improvements, there are pretty slim pickings. The province is still committed to 15-minute service on the core GO Train network (a commitment originally made two elections ago), and the province is still obsessed with regional transit-fare integration, despite the paltry evidence that it’s actually going to drive transit ridership.

The kinds of changes that could really improve life for transit users — and potentially get more people out of their cars — aren’t lines on a map or such technocratic fixes as improved Presto-card features. What riders need are cheaper transit, higher-frequency service, and more reliable service. 

That’s as true for buses and streetcars as it is for trains shuttling people between Toronto and Montreal. Activist group TTCRiders recently surveyed passengers on Toronto’s transit network about what they wanted to see as the city emerges from the pandemic, and the results aren’t surprising: people need lower fares and more reliable bus service (especially essential workers and people living on low incomes) more than they need a subway line that won’t open for another decade.

We know where money will do the most good. We just aren’t putting it there. Maybe we’ll try that someday, if we ever get bored of letting election results redraw our transit-planning maps every four years. 

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