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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Last year, GO Transit carried its 1 billionth passenger — not in calendar-year 2006, mind you, but since the province of Ontario launched the Greater Toronto Transit Authority (GO Transit) in May 1967. It only seemed like a billion to the commuter-rail and bus agency’s 1,390 managers and employees, who continue to attempt to serve a growing commuter base.
GO Transit served about 48 million people in 2006; rail commuters represent 80 percent of its ridership. Projected to increase at least 4 percent each year, ridership will reach 50 million in 2007 and double by 2027.
On its main Lakeshore Corridor, GO Transit carries three-fourths of the commuters heading into downtown Toronto on weekdays, a market share that will rise as more people elect to forgo congested highways and ride trains.
Meanwhile, the Toronto region’s population is exploding. Established in 1793, when British colonial officials founded what was then called the town of York, Toronto has become the hub of Canada’s commercial, financial, industrial and cultural life.
Currently topping 5 million, the 3,000-square-mile area attracts 125,000 more residents each year. In 20 years, Canada’s largest city and Ontario’s capital could reach a Chicago-like population exceeding 10 million.
The agency already provides 196 train trips daily — up from 179 last year — on seven corridors. But the 56-station, 224-route-mile railroad doesn’t have enough track, locomotives, bi-level cars or stations to keep pace with today’s, let alone tomorrow’s, demand.
“We have no spare capacity at all,” says GO Transit Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Gary McNeil. “The issue isn’t attracting ridership, it’s getting service out to the people and providing more frequency of train service.”
To serve this growing metropolis, the agency plans to do some growing of its own.
In the short term, GO Transit officials are trying to boost on-time performance — and, in turn, free up corridors to handle a few more trains — by correcting switch and signaling problems, preventing mechanical breakdowns, adjusting train schedules and changing operating practices.
Longer term, agency execs are working to add and upgrade infrastructure, acquire rolling stock, expand operations from 10-car to 12-car trains and introduce more off-peak service.
The agency currently is in the third year of the GO Transit Rail Improvement Program (GO TRIP), an eight-year, $1 billion infrastructure expansion and upgrade plan funded by the federal and provincial governments, Toronto-area municipalities and GO Transit.
Established in 2004 and launched in 2005, GO TRIP calls for adding and upgrading track; building and improving stations; completing three rail-to-rail and several rail-to-road grade separations; modernizing portions of downtown Toronto’s Union Station; upgrading signals and switches; and extending commuter-rail service from Bradford to Barrie.
GO Transit might have gotten an earlier jump on the program if it hadn’t taken several years for the government bodies to agree on a funding plan.
“We’re catching up with deferred investments, but we’ll probably never catch up,” says McNeil. “And the capital plan is bare bones — there’s not a lot of fluff.”
With GO TRIP still five years away from completion, capacity will remain an issue for some time. So, GO Transit managers are trying to optimize the commuter railroad’s capacity in the meantime. They’re also attempting to address capacity in other ways, such as by improving on-time performance.
Since peaking at 95 percent in January 2006, the agency’s performance — as measured by trains arriving within five minutes of schedule — dropped to 77 percent and 81 percent in January and February 2007, respectively.
The reasons range from mechanical problems to weather-related issues to track conflicts with VIA Rail Canada Inc. trains, and freight trains operated by Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway. The Class Is own and maintain two-thirds of the track GO Transit uses, and provide the agency engineers and conductors under an operating contract.
The agency hasn’t reached its 90-percent goal in nearly a year, since summer 2006, says McNeil.
“We’re asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to make our service more reliable?’” he says. “Should we adjust a schedule by five minutes to avoid a VIA train conflict? Get signals improved?”
In the meantime, commuters are becoming frustrated that their fastest transit option into and out of downtown isn’t on time, with one in five trains arriving late.
“If we get in at 7:35 instead of 7:30, that’s not a big deal,” says Peter Lloyd, GO Transit’s manager of rail equipment, who served as acting director of rail services a few months until the agency appointed Michael Cyr to that post in mid-March. “But if we arrive at 7:40, a rider notices and he thinks to himself, ‘They’re never on time.’”
To prevent train delays, GO Transit managers are analyzing operations from a big-picture standpoint.
“We need to look at our system from 20,000 feet. Where are the pinch points? Is one train always late? We’re still working on it,” says Lloyd. “There are no silver bullets, but we should at least find some shotgun pellets.”
Managers also are studying every train delay to determine the root cause. For example, some delays were caused by malfunctioning snow blowers after significant snowfalls. Now, if a heavy snowfall is predicted, dispatchers test snow blowers to ensure the equipment works, says Lloyd.
In addition, managers are analyzing the ramifications of a nearly year-long domino effect on GO Transit’s on-time performance, which was hampered by a CN derailment in summer 2006 that shut down the Lakeshore line; signal and switch problems in October; and CN’s and CPR’s decision in December to use one engineer instead of two on GO Transit trains operating on their lines.
“We have push-pull service and found changing directions is slow with one engineer,” says Lloyd.
The challenges kept right on coming in ’07. A blizzard and ice storm in January and February caused signal, switch and car door problems. Then, in February, CN had another derailment, which caused train delays “You’re talking a number of minutes here and there, but it all adds up,” says Lloyd.
An engineering feat
GO Transit managers hope a new joint operating/maintenance contract also helps boost service reliability by speeding push-pull operations.
The agency is soliciting a contract under which the provider would employ two people who are qualified as an engineer and one customer service agent on each train so one engineer doesn’t have to take time walking from the front to the back of a train at the end of a run.
“Currently, we have two conductors and one engineer on the Lakeshore lines, and one conductor and two engineers on branch lines,” says Lloyd.
On the beaten track
As managers improve service consistency, GO Transit will gain the capacity to operate a few more trains on each corridor. And as the agency completes infrastructure projects, the railroad will gain the physical capacity to add even more trains.
In some of GO Transit’s seven corridors, the agency currently can only operate four or five trains during peak hours because of freight traffic and dark territory constraints, says McNeil.
By next year, that situation should change on several corridors after a number of capacity projects are completed. On the Bradford Corridor, GO Transit plans to complete a rail-to-rail grade separation in summer; and extend track, build a new Mapleview Drive Station, construct a train layover facility in Barrie and build a new platform at Bradford Station by year’s end. The agency later will double-track the Bradford line, says McNeil.
“We’ll be able to go from four trains in the morning and four at night to five morning rush-hour trains and four at night,” says McNeil. “Plus, our on-time performance will go up because we won’t be held up by freight trains.”
The agency eventually will introduce off-peak service on the Bradford Corridor, offering trains operating at 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
“It will be a gradual increase in service so we don’t create a rolling stock problem,” says McNeil.
GO Transit also plans to complete grade separation projects on the Georgetown and Stouffville corridors, and upgrade track on the Georgetown North and South lines during the next two years to speed train traffic.
In addition, the agency will add third main tracks on the Lakeshore West Corridor between Burlington and Bayview Junctions (to be completed in March 2008), and between Oakville and Mississauga (June 2009) that will enable on-time trains to bypass delayed trains.
“If a locomotive breaks down, it can affect three or four trains — it ripples through our system,” says McNeil. “We need bypass tracks.”
Answering 12-car call
GO Transit also needs stations that can accommodate 12-car trains.
Most of the agency’s 56 stations are designed for 10-car train operations. So, crews will expand platforms at 45 of them; by October, the Lakeshore and Milton corridors’ 29 stations will feature larger platforms, says Director of Facilities Services Bob Boyle.
“We’ll get 20 percent more capacity virtually overnight,” he says.
GO Transit also is building a Milton Corridor layover facility east of Milton Station that’s designed to accommodate eight 12-car trains.
CPR is constructing a siding from the station to the layover facility, which will be completed in July. In addition, GO Transit is extending Milton Station’s platform for 12-car train service. Project completion is targeted for January 2008.
Meanwhile, GO Transit’s most heavily used station — Toronto’s Union Station — is in the midst of a much-needed makeover. Used by 41 million GO Transit rail and bus riders annually, the station is 80 years old and no longer meets the agency’s needs, GO Transit managers say.
The facility is about halfway through a $600 million Union Station Rail Corridor Infrastructure Improvement Program that’s scheduled to conclude in 2014.
The program is funded by the Canadian government, province and Toronto-area municipalities, including the city. GO Transit and HDI Joint Venture are responsible for program management; private developers are handling design and construction work.
Freight no longer a factor
Freight railroads stopped using Union Station in the late 1950s, yet part of the facility still is set up for freight-rail operations, says David Hopper, deputy program manager for Union Station renewal.
Station rehabilitation plans call for separating freight and passenger handling platforms, and reconfiguring platforms strictly for passenger operations; eliminating track and switches that were designed for freight-rail operations; expanding the passenger concourse; constructing a second GO concourse at the facility’s west end; adding stairways and elevators; and making the facility accessible to disabled persons.
In addition, the station will receive a new computer-based interlocking and train-control system.
“Union Station has the most complicated interlocking system in North America [with] six different rail subdivisions coming into downtown Toronto,” says Hopper. “The station also has a vintage 1927 electromechanical interlocking system.”
Historical and modern
The station will sport a new 350,000-square-foot train shed, as well. To enter the construction phase early next year, the facility will replace a shed built in the 1920s.
The train shed will feature a glass atrium and contemporary design, but retain the existing structure’s historically preserved exterior, says Hopper.
GO Transit also recently added a key train facility just east of Union Station. The agency acquired a yard from CN and expanded the facility earlier this year to create a train storage yard designed to accommodate 10 train consists.
“The yard will help improve our operations into the station from the west,” says Boyle.
The yard also will serve as a temporary stop for many of the new locomotives and cars GO Transit will acquire during the next year.
The agency has ordered 27 MP40 locomotives — and retains an option to order 26 more — from MotivePower Industries Inc.
The 4,000-horsepower locomotives will generate 575 volts to deliver 720 kilowatts of power, says Director of Equipment Development Al Robinson.
“Our current fleet of 56 locomotives have 3,000 horsepower and 500 kilowatts of power,” he says, adding that the power was built between 1988 and 1994.
The more powerful locomotives will enable GO Transit to operate 12-car trains, increase speed from 80 mph to 95 mph to “stay in front of a VIA Rail train,” retire older power and avoid mechanical breakdowns, says McNeil.
“Our locomotives’ age has been an issue,” he says. “If you drove an ’88 Ford LTD, you’d have a lot of problems with it.”
MotivePower will begin delivering the locomotives in September, then provide the power at a rate of two units per month, says Robinson.
Meanwhile, GO Transit is about to take delivery of the last two bi-level cars under a 20-car order with Bombardier Transportation. The agency’s fleet currently comprises 415 cars built between 1980 and 2006, says Robinson.
GO Transit’s board recently approved plans to place another 20-car order with Bombardier.
“The contract allows Bombardier to keep the assembly line running, which avoids the cost of restarting the line and results in a much quicker delivery schedule,” says Robinson.
Bombardier will begin delivering the bi-level coaches in October and complete delivery in March 2008, he says, adding that GO Transit also is rebuilding 20 cars.
A fare assessment
Despite spending millions of dollars on rolling stock and infrastructure, GO Transit won’t increase fares in 2007 — the first time the agency hasn’t hiked fares in the past eight years, says McNeil.
“We’ve hedged our fuel, which has saved us about $7 million, have had strong ridership growth and our electric consumption wasn’t as high as we projected,” he said.
In addition, GO Transit continues to recover more than 80 percent of its operating costs from the farebox — the highest percentage among North American transit systems, agency managers say.
During fiscal-year 2005-06, GO Transit recovered 88.5 percent of its operating costs from fares; the province subsidized the remaining 11.5 percent.
When it comes to meeting
operational needs, GO Transit managers aren’t sweating out a higher budget request or fare increase proposal.
But they are perspiring a bit when it comes to ensuring the agency gets the capacity it needs.
Will GO TRIP provide it when the program’s complete in 2012? Will GO Transit be able to keep up with ridership demand? Capacity projects appear to be in step with population projections — at least for now.
“Growth is inevitable,” says McNeil. “And our ridership growth is occurring without a lot more infrastructure added right now.”
GO Transit also appears to be on the right track to service consistency, managers say. Preliminary on-time performance data showed the railroad made a few strides in March.
“We’re doing a lot of things to help make us more reliable,” says McNeil.
But time is of the essence. Or there’ll be fewer trains serving commuters — and fewer options to free up capacity — than there could be.
“We can’t wait one or two years to improve,” says McNeil.