SmartTrack, Toronto's surface subway transit proposal, is nothing like what was promised originally

SmartTrack was originally proposed as a major part of John Tory's 2014 mayoral campaign, bringing rapid and reliable commuter rail service to 22 stations across 53 kilometres of track. The concept for the transit line has since been pared down drastically to only six new stations, but will still extend from the airport lands to Markham.

Tory has consistently touted the system as a "surface subway" (akin to the London Overground), but subways run frequently and SmartTrack was proposed to run only every 15 minutes, which would not lead to an increase in ridership as hoped. Plans quickly changed and now the headways proposed are as little as 5 minutes, which while is still not as frequent as the subway (2-3 minutes on Line 1 during peak hours), it's a much better frequency than before.

The biggest issue to all of the promises made is that John Tory, who is now the Mayor of Toronto, didn't take into account the fact that to build a separate train line (which is what he proposed), you need to build separate segregated tracks. Building tracks requires the demolition of houses and buildings along the existing track corridors to expand them, which increases the cost of construction by billions. Two new platforms would also be required at the already overcrowded Union Station, and with this in mind, the project has been pared down and become much like an empty promise.

Luckily, SmartTrack is being built in addition to GO's electrification scheme that will double train frequencies at most stations during the daytime. But in regards to the Mayor's transit plan, there's still many unanswered questions: what will the frequency actually be, will a change of trains be required at Union and what will passenger fares cost?

Some researchers from UoT set out to find some of these answers two years ago and looked at the ridership potential for each headway, ranging from 5 to 15 minutes.

Headway

15 minutes

10 minutes

5 minutes

TTC Fares

76,617 

154,296 

314,567 

GO Fares

37,680 

61,358 

108,014 

These numbers assume there is a low population and medium amount of employment being served.

In terms of the headway between trains, it's very clear that the lower it is, the higher the passenger numbers will be. The increase is so dramatic that ridership doubles each time you shave five minutes off the headway, which just proves that there is a growing demand for transit that must be met. However, this study assumes there will be free transfers between the TTC and SmartTrack (which is hopefully called something else once built) and with Metrolinx studying the possibility of fare-by-distance for local transit systems, this has the possibility to change.

There are some other factors that could help with the headway and effectiveness of SmartTrack as well: things like express trains and level boarding. The London Overground is a great example of what our SmartTrack and Regional Express Rail projects should look like, with frequent, accessible service for all. There's a variety of different things that will have to go into making both of these programs (though they're somewhat one-and-the-same in hindsight) successful, including:

Express trains: trains coming from the outside of each line could operate as express trains along the inner portion of the line, skipping the downtown stations (trains would likely be full anyway and the stops might be redundant) while still stopping at the stations in the suburbs. Building new stations no longer penalizes all passengers, and only impacts the travel times of the people actually using the stations.

Level boarding: allowing passengers to board on platforms that are level with the height of the train floors, as to remove the steps that people boarding have to climb to get onto the current GO Transit trains. This would not only make station stops quicker, but also increase the accessibility of the service for people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.

Integrated fares: Metrolinx will have to assume control of fares for both its own GO Transit division as well as for local transit agencies throughout the GTHA. Currently people are penalized for taking trips that cross municipal boundaries, and eliminating this bottleneck would attract more passengers to the new stations, especially if the promise of the same fare for both the TTC and SmartTrack is followed through with. Heck, even a fare-by-distance scheme would be better for customers than the current fare-by-system one that we currently have.

This also brings up the question of "what if the headway was increased even more", to that of the actual subway? With the line electrified as planned, it's certainly possible, depending on the number of trains ordered. Would shaving it down to 2-4 minutes between trains increase the ridership as drastically as the studied headway reductions do? The city is already predicting that 33 million people will be served by the new line by 2041, of which 6.2 million will be new to the transit system, and bringing expanded rapid transit to the whole city is a great way to get cars off the road. Keep in mind that this is just speculation on my part, and that these suggestions might not pan out as I've assumed they might.

A map of both the existing and new stations along the SmartTrack route that would make up the service. 📸: SmartTrack

One of the main purposes of this commuter rail line is to relieve overcrowding on Line 1, which is already at its peak. Though the frequency proposed was only originally 15 minute service, it's incredibly clear that a higher frequency is needed to get Toronto moving faster and more reliably. However, Tory has been constantly quoted by the news saying the line will "provide a service level of six to ten minute peak service frequencies," meaning he is not planning to run it at a ultra-frequent rate.

A reporter at the Toronto Star came up with the idea to electrify the UP Express airport line and increase the frequency so that it is more accessible to commuters. This doesn't necessarily solve the overcrowding problems, but it would help move people around in the short term, especially now that fares on the line might be slashed (riding on the results of the election, of course). Electrification of train services allows them to stop at more stations in the same amount of time because they are able to stop and go faster than traditional trains.

Service was supposed to begin in 2021, as initially promised, but that's almost impossible to achieve now. The western part of the system has been abandoned for the Eglinton West LRT extension to serve the same area. Extending the line to the airport will add an additional 10 stops and is a separate project, even though Tory keeps including it in the SmartTrack portfolio. The city is supposed to pay 1.2 billion and the line is supposed to be in service in 2023, but like all Toronto transit projects, expect this to be majorly delayed.

Furthermore, the project was originally supposed to cost $1.2 billion, but has since risen to $1.46 and could cost even more by the time a final vote is held and construction begins. For context, Toronto paid $3.2 billion, or $372 million per kilometre, for the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension which ended up being both over-budget and was completed late. In comparison on London's new 118 kilometre Crossrail route, of which 22 kilometres are underground, they are paying only $205 million per kilometre, almost half of what we're paying.

The feds are contributing $585 million, leaving the city on the hook for the other $878 million, which it will raise through a risky, new form of funding called tax increment funding. With this funding type, the city will designate areas around the new stations as designated zones and then use property tax generated by the buildings to pay back the loan. A consultant's review of the funding method says there are major risks associated with it, including a risk that development will not materialize.

For SmartTrack, the opening date is at least 2025, if not later. It's a big project strung together with a bunch of empty promises and assumptions, but that's how transit works in Toronto.

📸: Giphy