Passenger Rail

Canadian Commuter Rail Summary 2021

Following the annus horibilis that was 2020, I am pleased to report that commuter rail service in Canada is showing a promising rate of recovery.

The service scheduled at the beginning of January 2022 is better in every way than the schedules one year prior, with the sole exception of the Stouffville line, whose last train on weekend evenings has now been replaced by a bus trip.

Commuter rail summary January 2022, coloured relative to January 2021

Off-peak service on most lines has returned to pre-pandemic levels, though peak-period service frequencies continue to be a bit lower due to the lower commuter ridership.

Commuter rail summary January 2022, coloured relative to January 2020
Ottawa Passenger Rail Redesigns

Where to spend $500M on VIA lines?

In the 2021 budget of the Government of Canada, there is an item named “Next Step towards High Frequency Rail in the Toronto – Quebec City Corridor, with a budget of $491 million over 6 years.

This is in itself a concerning development, since the HFR project proposed by VIA Rail requires at least $4 billion. The 6 year timeline is also suspiciously long for a “next step”, which could be a sign of the government rejecting the proposal while trying to avoid admitting that they have done so.

2021 Budget item for VIA Rail upgrades

On the bright side, at least there is $491 million allocated for railway upgrades. Now the question is what that money will actually be used for. Two good candidates for investment would be the railway lines already owned by VIA that are included as part of the proposed HFR route: the Smiths Falls subdivision between Smiths Falls and Ottawa, and the Alexandria subdivision between Ottawa and Les Coteaux, QC (just west of greater Montréal).

Here are some cost-effective upgrades that would be possible along the Smiths Falls and Alexandria subdivisions:

Passenger Rail

Canadian Commuter Rail Summary 2020

2020 was a horrible year for mass transport in general, and Canadian commuter rail systems were hit particularly hard.

The Netherlands Toronto Traffic Signals

How Vehicle Actuation Works

Vehicle Actuation is a simple mechanism which is remakably effective at determining the “right” duration for a traffic signal phase. It repeatedly checks the activity on one or more vehicle detectors to determine when the traffic flow rate in a lane has dropped below a certain threshold and the green should therefore end.

This is not to be confused with Traffic Adaptation, which is a much more complex system which does active calculations based on aggregated traffic information to determine the optimal green durations based on metrics such as vehicle delay and number of stops.

While Traffic Adaptative systems are commonly labeled as “smart” signals in the media, many of the actions that road users may commonly associate with smart signals are actually the result of actuation, not adaptation. These can include varying the combination of phases based on the users present, providing tailored green waves for groups of approaching vehicles, and ending the green at precisely the right moment when a queue has cleared.

Passenger Rail

Mythbusting VIA’s HFR travel time claims

ERRATUM: Some of the assumptions made in the below article have been subsequently proven to be poor. The speed of trains through curves can actually be somewhat faster than I assumed. This results in a theoretical minimum travel time roughly 30 minutes shorter than reported here in the “Only Upgrade” scenario. For more details, see the related discussion on the UrbanToronto Forum.

For the last few years, VIA Rail has been proposing to implement “High Frequency Rail”, which effectively amounts to upgrading infrastructure to increase capacity for passenger trains, and reduce conflicts with freight trains. Trains’ maximum service speed would be 110 mph (177 km/h), roughly the same as current VIA service. This is in contrast to previous unsuccessful proposals, which proposed to implement “High Speed Rail”, which would have had 300 km/h trains on a high speed line. The fundamental advantage of the new proposal is a vastly lower construction cost, since it can make use of existing railway rights-of-way and can have level crossings.

The backbone of the proposal is a new mainline from Toronto to Ottawa that VIA would own itself. The concept is to purchase CP Havelock Subdivision, which is currently very lightly used from Toronto to Havelock, and completely abandoned from Havelock to Perth where it rejoins the existing CP mainline.

VIA claims that because the line is largely existing, it can be upgraded and rebuilt for a cost of a few billion dollars (the exact number has varied and nothing is currently stated on the website). And according to the website, it will reduce the travel time from 4h30 to 3h15:

Screenshot of VIA Rail website on 16 August 2020

But there are a number of problems with this travel time claim. First of all, the current travel time is not 4h30. Trains are scheduled to run the line as quickly as 4h07, and in 2014 they ran services as quickly as 3h48:

July 2014 schedule Toronto-Ottawa. Train #56 takes 3:48, and #42 takes 3:52

But my bigger concern is with their estimate of 3h15 with HFR. In order to cover the 397-km Havelock route in 3h15, trains would need to average 122 km/h. This is on par with some existing VIA rail express services, but given some of the physical constraints along the Havelock route, it seems rather optimistic.

Passenger Rail

Canadian Commuter Rail Summary 2019

I’m a bit late this year, but better late than never… so here’s my annual summary of the development of Canadian commuter rail in the year 2019.

The changes introduced in 2019 have been a long stream of good news in Ontario, a mixed bag in Québec, and as usual there is no news at all from British Columbia.


Passenger Rail

Canadian Commuter Rail Summary 2018

Commuter rail operators across the country have released their 2019 schedules, which means it’s time for my annual summary of Commuter Rail service.

As with every year I have made these summaries, there has been expansion of rail service in Ontario, and absolutely no improvement anywhere else in the country.  The only progress outside of Ontario is that the Réseau de Transport de Montréal (RTM) has now branded their commuter rail services as “Exo”, which means that for the second year in a row, Montréal commuter rail lines received sharp-looking rebranded schedules with the same train times as always.

Improvements highlighted in green, deteriorations highlighted in red:

Passenger Rail

Canadian Commuter Rail Summary 2017

It’s that time of year again, where I scan through all the commuter rail timetables in Canada, to see how the the fastest-growing motorized transport mode is doing.

For the third year in a row, there have been major expansions of train service in Ontario, but no improvements anywhere else in the country.

Improvements highlighted in green, deteriorations highlighted in red:

Hamilton Reviews

Parking a bicycle at Hamilton Centre Station

Hamilton Centre station a great example of an integrated transit terminal.  In a single facility there are GO Transit regional trains and buses, Greyhound and Coach Canada intercity buses, and Hamilton Street Railway local buses.  Having all these different agencies operate out of a single facility makes transfers between services easy, which benefits all services involved.  But the station’s integration isn’t just limited to transit services.  It also provides some of the best bicycle parking options of a station in Ontario.

I did a walkaround of the station to tally up the parking options available, and here’s what I found.

Passenger Rail Toronto

Days numbered for York University GO Station

York University GO Station was my local train station for many years.  But for most of that time, I never used it because it was only served by two trains per weekday, which were not at useful times for me.  In more recent years, I used it a bit more, thanks to an ever-increasing number of train departures.  But after the end of 2017, I will likely not be using the station at all – as it is planned to be closed permanently.  In its place will be the new Downsview Park station at Sheppard Avenue, on the new extension of the TTC’s subway Line 1.

The decision to close York University GO Station has not yet been finalized, but it would be rather difficult to justify maintaining the station.  It currently serves only 225 passengers per weekday, which makes it the least-used train station in Toronto.  And it’s not hard to figure out why – it’s nearly impossible to get to.  The station is located deep in an industrial area, so there is little to no walk-up traffic.  There is no car parking, so park-and-ride isn’t an option either.  There are also no public transit connections – the only bus which serves the station is a private shuttle operated by York University for its members.  That shuttle only connects to certain weekday train trips, and there is no service at all on weekends.  Not being a York University member, the only ways I could access the station were to cycle on some rather unfriendly North York roads or get someone to drop me off with a car.

York University Station surroundings. (Image from Google Earth)

As with any station closure, there is some amount of controversy.  Over the past couple years, there have been periodically been protest posters and petitions plastered on the fence at the station, and more recently the CBC published a story featuring people who are upset about the possible closure.

According to a York student, “it would be a disaster” to travel from the GO Train to York University on a subway train rather than a bus, because there could be subway delays.  And according to the York University manager of transportation, the new configuration would add 20 minutes to the trip to campus for train passengers coming from the north.

But the article fails to point out that neither of these statements are based in reality.  While subway delays certainly do exist, the same is true with any mode of transportation.  And in general, a subway line will be more dependable than an individual bus driving in mixed traffic between the campus and the station.  And whereas the current shuttle bus only connects to select weekday GO trains, the subway will operate frequently all day every day, thereby connecting to every GO train departure.