When explaining the rationale behind allocating almost C$2bn to the GO Transit Regional Express Rail (RER) project, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the growing desirability of the outer suburbs in southern Ontario. The communities developing away from the region’s major cities are putting pressure on transportation networks, forcing operators to consider how best to cope with the rise in demand.
For the GO Transit system, which serves the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and carries more than 65 million passengers a year, the answer is a C$13.5bn programme to evolve from the existing rush-hour commuter service to a two-way, all-day regional network.
Trains currently serve a population of seven million, stretching from Hamilton in the west to Newcastle and Peterborough in the east, as well as Orangeville, Barrie and Beaverton in the north to Niagara Falls in the south. The Greater Toronto Area consists of the city of Toronto and the surrounding regions of Halton, Peel, York and Durham.
One of the core elements of expanding GO Transit’s scope is RER, which kicked off in earnest in 2015. Metrolinx, the owner of GO Transit, has been set the ambitious target of getting work completed by March 2025.
"The GO rail system started 50 years ago this month [May],” explains Michael Wolczyk, vice-president of corridor infrastructure at Metrolinx. “It started as a commuter system, bringing people in from the suburbs to downtown [Toronto]. It has grown dramatically over the years – ridership has increased and we've added lines [but] there's still a need for more.”
Wolczyk explains what RER incorporates and how the network is adapting during construction works.
Gary Peters: Why is the RER project needed?
Michael Wolczyk: What the project does is really take the system to the next step, providing two-way, all-day services on the corridors that we own, which is five. The two-way service allows it to transform from one that not only brings people in, but also takes people out of Toronto.
Right now, about 91% of our passengers are either getting on or off at downtown Toronto Union Station. This [project] can help solve some of the wider transportation problems in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region. We have huge congestion problems and we're very much a growing region, [so] that is only going to get worse.
GP: In terms of the detail, what does RER actually involve?
MW: A lot of our network is single-track. What we are doing is double-tracking and adding additional track to increase capacity.
We're also adding 12 new stations on top of the 65 we currently have. That's a dramatic improvement, and we're also electrifying lines. That's huge for us. Our current fleet is diesel electric and going to electric will give us better performance and is better for the environment.
The primary driver [for this work] is congestion. There's so much demand for more service.
GP: What challenges have you encountered to date?
MW: One of the biggest is operating a live system [while work is ongoing]. While doing the construction work we can't impact on the people who depend on the network to get to and from their destinations.
We have to do a lot of night and weekend work. It does complicate it and slows the pace at which we can carry out the work.
Toronto Union Station is a big challenge for us, because it was never designed for the number of people who flow through it now. There's no room left to expand the footprint; it's surrounded by development, so our options are very limited there.
GP: What sort of increase in services are you hoping for?
MW: We're looking at 15-minute, two-way services during off-peak and more frequent than that during the peak periods – that's in the core network. Farther out in the network, it will be at least an hourly service.
GP: And new rolling stock?
MW: Yes. We are currently looking at this. Most likely they will be electric locomotives. We do have a large fleet – almost 700 coaches – that range in age from about zero to 40 years old, so they have a lot of life in them.
GP: What are some of the major achievements of the project so far?
MW: The work at Union Station [for one]. We have completed a lot of the planning work, [so are now moving to] environmental assessments, which are either in place or progressing. We're also doing the environmental assessment for electrification of the network.
GP: Your 2016 GO Rail Station Access Plan makes recommendations for improving access to stations. As a whole, how good, or bad, is accessibility currently?
MW: I would say we are doing extremely well. 60 out of our 65 rail station are accessible today. The five remaining ones are those that have major challenges associated with them, but we will get those done.
All of the new infrastructure that we build will be fully accessible. We have a legislative requirement to achieve full accessibility by 2025.
GP: The GO programme has been described as the largest commuter rail programme in Canada. Do you feel, therefore, greater pressure to get it right?
MW: Absolutely. Our largest expansion on the GO rail system prior to this was about C$1bn, so C$13.5bn is a huge amount of work.
It's also an aggressive timeframe. We were challenged to do this in ten years, which seems like a long time, but there's much to be done and of course it's around a live transport system.
The idea of getting C$13.5bn, going away for ten years and building things and then launching all these new services… that's not very palatable. So, we have to launch services each year along the way.
GP: Moving forward, what’s next in your plan?
MW: We're working on procurement. The way it is structured, we have a number of what we're calling enabling works procurements; they are large contracts, but smaller compared to our future contracts. We have 14 that are least C$100m, which we will be issuing over the next year, in addition to work that is already underway.
We also have two major contracts over the next couple of years. One includes the electrification, signals, and any remaining civil infrastructure, and we have an ‘off-corridor’ package which includes all of the station work.
GP: When will RER be fully complete and operational?
MW: We have been given the task of completing it by the end of our 2024/2025 fiscal year, so March 2025. Of course, you don't launch all of those services in one big bang. They will be implemented at various times, up to that 2025 date.
GP: Anything you would do differently?
MW: Well, there are always things. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I think perhaps we thought we were further along in planning than we really were. We have been a little slow moving from plan to build. We underestimated how much planning was left to be done.