There have been some big announcements about Regional Express Rail (RER) today. It’s exciting news but here are 5 key questions that we should be thinking about to make the most of the investment.
Regional Express Rail (RER) is a commitment to offer all-day GO Train service, running every 15 minutes in both directions. There would be electrified service on Metrolinx-owned rail corridors which means that the trains could start and stop more quickly and speed up travel times.
While one can always find something to complain about, for the most part we have come to expect an ever-increasing improvement in GO transit service. RER is no subtle upgrade. It has the potential to transform the current commuter system into a regional rapid transit network, connecting all corners of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It would mean that someone living in Port Credit could easily work in Oakville, catch a Jays game in Toronto on the weekend and visit friends in Markham, all without having to take a car or suffer the baffling task of negotiating multiple transit systems. RER changes the way we move about, think about and plan our region, but there are important questions to consider if we want to get it right.
1. How should we upgrade existing rail corridors through established neighbourhoods?
To enable RER, substantial track upgrades will be required along GO routes to double track in places, reduce conflicts with freight, and ensure that the corridors are designed to accommodate trains running at such frequent intervals. Some of this work will be undertaken in established neighbourhoods; places that are unused to frequent train service. We know from the work on the Georgetown South Corridor through Weston, Mount Dennis and the east Junction that residents are concerned about this type of change, and rightly so – while everyone likes better transit, no one wants it running through their back yards or the required construction work to get it there. Metrolinx is currently piloting a new process for a similar initiative in the Davenport neighbourhood of Toronto, one that involves a community reference group to explore how the proposed improvements could be meshed with other community building initiatives such as new trails. This will hopefully result in a template for other processes that result in corridor improvements that are more responsive to their local contexts. If not there is a risk of a more difficult and contentious roll-out of the RER system.
What does it mean for the future of our existing GO stations?
The existing GO network is served primarily by a series of Park and Ride stations designed to enable users to drive to the station and take the train to work. RER can be expected to lead to substantial increases in ridership but given the current model this would require more parking. This is expensive, land consumptive and runs counter to Metrolinx objectives to increase the number of people walking, cycling and taking transit to stations.
We need to rethink what these stations are and how they fit within their communities. While it would seem logical that they all become higher density, mixed use places, most stations are located along the edges of our neighbourhoods and employment centres and so are not the most attractive places for people to live and work. A strategy is needed to determine the appropriate role of individual stations on a system-wide basis, one that identifies which stations have the greatest potential to be transformed given RER, and conversely which stations make the most sense as primarily drive-to places for the foreseeable future. This work has been started, through studies evaluating the development potential of GO Transit’s stations and the 2013 GO Transit Rail Parking and Station Access Plan, but these works should be consolidated and updated into a more comprehensive strategy, one that reflects the new market realities and operational needs of each station now that RER is in play.
What new stations should we be considering?
Current station spacing along the GO corridor is generally between 4 and 6 kilometres. The switch to electric service with its faster stop and start times means that an opportunity might exist to increase the frequency of stations. Indeed, in London England, the Overground stations are spaced less than 1km apart in places; the sort of spacing that is more akin to a rapid transit service than commuter rail. This wouldn’t make sense everywhere, but there are places where the addition of a mid-stop station might make sense given the context of RER. Cities and the Province should be thinking ahead to this possibility, identifying where those opportunities might exist and establishing a policy framework to promote new destinations where those stations would be planned. It would be a shame if new development happened that made future stations in these areas more isolated, surrounded by un-supportive uses or more difficult to achieve.
What opportunities might exist to better connect people to jobs?
One of the greatest challenges for our regional transit network is connecting people to jobs. The current GO network was developed at a time when a majority of people lived in the suburbs and commuted downtown Toronto for work. This is no longer the case. People are now just as likely to travel from Brampton to Mississauga for work or vice versa. These people are not served by our existing radial GO network. Just as the system is evolving from a commuter to express rail system we should be thinking about how we might evolve the network to provide more coverage and deliver more inter-905 service. Opportunities might exist along the CNR or CP corridors to connect places such as Burlington, Milton, Halton, Brampton, Vaughan and Markham around the edge of Toronto. An outer GO ring could be transformative to our regional transit network and respond to our changing employment landscape.
How can we coordinate the investment to create a truly regional transit system?
The transformation of our GO network into an express service demands far greater integration of our transit systems. If GO stations are located at the edges of our communities then we will need transit services and facilities to move people there. If a typical commute may involve riding a local bus or LRT to get to the GO station, then we need systems that are seamlessly integrated, easy to navigate and coordinated to support each other. Metrolinx has taken the first steps with its integrated Presto fare system which will enable users to use the same fare card anywhere in the GTHA, but riders will still be faced with a double fee when they cross municipal boundaries. This is a strong disincentive that needs to be addressed. Metrolinx is also currently working on a regional wayfinding strategy, one that explores harmonizing the mish-mash of signage found across the region’s 10 transit agencies to create a more consistent regional standard. This will not be easy. It will require some agencies such as the TTC to admit that there may be other ways of doing things and ask others such as MiWay in Mississauga and Züm in Brampton and Viva in York — all of which have recently undergone expensive branding and wayfinding exercises — to look at implementing new standards over time. It’s a worthwhile investment though, one that will support a big shift in our understanding of region transit and move it away from a series of disjointed municipal networks to a single comprehensive system.
RER is a tremendous opportunity; now let’s figure out how to make the most of it.
Craig Lametti is a Senior Associate with Urban Strategies.