Friday, May 28, 2010

Transport: GO Electrification Study

The audience was less than impressed with a technology comparison slide at the GO Transit electrification study town meeting at the Lithuanian House in Toronto, Ontario on 26-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The first public meeting for the GO electrification study held Wednesday evening at the Lithuanian House near The Junction in Toronto, Ontario drew a who's who in area transit advocacy. Everyone from local city councillor Gord Perks to the Clean Trains Coalition's Mike Sullivan to the influential Steve Munro was noted in attendance. They were there in part because the general public knew little about this study, which we learned will be taking place throughout 2010. After two and a half hours, I'm not sure anyone left the room satisfied.

Unlike a previous study that focused only on the Lakeshore line, this study is system-wide in scope. Rather than just dispositioning the idea of electrification as a yes or no based on economic models, it is intended to provide a blueprint for how recommended options might actually proceed. In order to do that, it makes a variety of assumptions, foremost that Union Station will be able to handle the expanded schedules anticipated for all lines in 2020, the approximate "medium term" that is the focus of the study. Furthermore, it looked at a variety of options including diesel multiple-units, electric multiple-units, and even hydrogen locomotives, as well as the use of electric locomotives.

That all might seem well and good, but there are some bizarre aspects to the study. The baseline for the study is the use of the MP40PH-3C diesel locomotives that GO has been placing in service since 2008, upgraded to so-called Tier IV emissions standards. However, no passenger locomotive meeting the Tier IV emissions standard has yet been produced, nor is there any certainty that the MP40PH-3C fleet will be able to be upgraded to meet the standard. So, the baseline assumption, far from being a well-characterized option, is essentially all guesswork--not exactly a firm foundation for any study.

Then, there were a number of things that the study managers seemed to not realize that would seem to be quite relevant to the study. Steve Munro pointed out that the potential need of a second, below-ground level of platforms at Union Station would likely make electrification necessary regardless of what the study determined. Mike Sullivan pointed out that the bi-level coaches used by GO were originally designed to be converted to electric multiple-units, which could radically change the economics of transitioning to that option. A GO manager was crucified by the audience for displaying ignorance of the sound levels produced by diesel locomotives, claiming that sound walls would have to be built regardless of the technology chosen.

Most people in the room were quite concerned about the "Air Rail Link" or ARL between Union Station and Pearson International Airport, which uses the Georgetown Line right-of-way for most of its distance. Despite the fact that service will be run by a private operator and not GO, electrification of that line was included in the scope of the study. However, because of the 2015 timeline for opening, study project director Karen Pitre actually stated that "I don't think it's practical" for the ARL to be built as an electrified line if so recommended by the study, implying that it would have to be a subsequent upgrade.

This meeting will likely be one of only a few public meetings during the study; GO and Metrolinx are instead trying to get public feedback through the web site for the study, This was pointed out as inaccessible to many residents along the rail lines who are not web-savvy, including seniors.

I was left with the impression that the people doing the electrification study are sincere and possibly even positively disposed to the implementation of electrification on GO Transit. However, with the base case chosen, the lack of Metrolinx authority over the ARL, and the lack of broad forums for public feedback (never mind the political realities that might ignore whatever the study says), the study may prove to be all for naught--just like the earlier Lakeshore electrification study has been.

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