The Air Rail Link Electrification Debate

Max Greenwald

Crucial planning and transportation issues are being raised in the ongoing dispute between Metrolinx and the Clean Train Coalition (CTC) around the planned air rail link (ARL) between Union Station and Pearson International Airport. The CTC (a non-profit organization) is challenging the decision by Metrolinx (the province’s transportation and planning authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area) to operate diesel-electric trains—a.k.a. “clean diesel” as they exceed the WHO’s emission standards—on the ARL rather than operating purely electric trains. The CTC argues that electric trains would better suit the long-term needs of the Toronto region, a legislated mandate of Metrolinx.

The CTC’s court challenge is encouraging debate on an important public issue and bringing into question the decision-making behind the rail link. Yes, the ARL will carry the thousands of Pan Am Games athletes and visitors in 2015, but it will also operate for decades after. The Games are creating a policy window to finally push through rapid transit from the downtown to the airport, but is this driving factor forcing the adoption of inferior infrastructure for the sake of a one-off event?

The impetus behind the long awaited ARL between Pearson International Airport and Union Station is Toronto’s hosting of the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games — the third largest international sporting competition in the world, after the Olympics and Asian Games. During July and August of that year, the GTHA will play host to over 7,000 athletes, along with their coaches, trainers, and fans.

The CTC filed an application to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on August 8th, 2012, claiming Metrolinx’s $53-million purchase of the diesel-electric trains from Sumitomo Corp (a US subsidiary of a Japanese company) was made without properly comparing the environmental and service effects of diesel versus electric trains, and failed to properly consider the health impacts of increased diesel emissions along the ARL corridor. As per the CTC, electric trains would benefit the health of the 300,000 people who live within 450 meters of the ARL. Electric trains would also incur lower operating costs and are more energy efficient, compared to diesel-electric trains.

Amongst world class cities, Toronto stands out as being one of the only cities that does not have high-speed rapid transit from its international airport to its downtown. This has negative implications for the region’s competitiveness, prosperity, and environmental impact. Metrolinx estimates that congestion in the GTA costs $6-billion annually (as of 2006), a figure that will rise as the population of the GTA increases.  But this can be mitigated through the improvement of multi-modal transportation systems. Metrolinx estimates that during its first year of operation, the ARL will eliminate 1.2-million car trips.

Building new transportation infrastructure is costly, takes years of consultation and planning, and significantly impacts future land use, development, communities, and travel patterns. Rightly so, decisions like these must be scrutinized by the public sector and civil society. While Metrolinx is planning to complete an environmental study of electrification by 2014, this is insufficient for the CTC who see post-construction electrification as a lower ranked alternative to running electric trains from the get go. Metrolinx has planned for the conversion the clean diesel trains to electric at a future date—the vehicles are fully convertible to electric, and track upgrades currently underway are built to allow for electrification.

If the route is going to be electrified, the ARL will not be ready for 2015. Metrolinx has stated that the earliest possible date the route could be electrified by is 2017. Whether electrification of the ARL will actually materialize post-Games will be dependent on the stance of political actors, civic groups, Metrolinx, and of course the public purse.

The reality is that with the influx of people to Toronto for the Pan/Parapan Am Games in 2015, municipalities and the province are preparing to handle increased demand on the region’s transportation system. This is a growing policy concern, which is already beset by increasing congestion and a deficit of sustainable transportation infrastructure. More multi-modal transportation systems are needed, with transit being a key component for minimizing the negative consequences of increased automobile use. Installing electric trains on the ARL (rather than diesel-electric) will jeopardize what is already a tight deadline of July 2015 and likely mean that Pan Am Games visitors will be forced to access the downtown through the existing transportation infrastructure—400-series highways and a time consuming TTC route.

However, Metrolinx does have a statutory requirement to consider the long-term needs of the GTHA—the crux of CTC’s argument against the provincial agency for not seriously considering operating electric trains on the ARL from its inception. Electric trains will cost less to operate, be more energy efficient, quieter, and will not pollute. These are in the long-term interest of the region.

The Pan Am Games are a catalyst for the ARL; they have created a hard deadline to get the rail link operation by 2015. Yes, the ARL will be vital for the transportation needs during the Games, but its legacy will last long after. The environmental study that will be completed in 2014 ought to have prefaced the decision to operate diesel trains so that Metrolinx could properly assess diesel versus electric.

If the CTC’s court challenge is successful, it may mean the region will continue to wait for rapid transit from its major international airport to the downtown. But if having an electric ARL from  the beginning is in fact the better decision, the wait will be worth it. If construction of the ARL continues as planned, electrification will have to happen in the future. The challenge will be holding the agency, and ultimately the province, to that goal.

Max Greenwald is a co-Editor-in-Chief of the Public Policy and Governance Review. He is a 2013 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance and holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Guelph. Max has worked on infrastructure, transportation, environmental and urban planning issues with both the City of Toronto and Province of Ontario.

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