Toronto characterizes itself as the "Transit City" for good reason.
The largest city in Canada, Toronto is served by two major transit systems — the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and GO Transit (officially known as the Greater Toronto Transit Authority).
Combined, the two transit systems provide nearly 500 million passenger trips each year with rail services, bus operations and TTC’s streetcar line. That puts Toronto behind only New York City and Mexico City in terms of North American transit ridership.
TTC, which has been in operation since 1921, recorded its 25 billionth rider in 2005, while GO Transit recently celebrated two major milestones — its 40th anniversary and its billionth rider.
The fast-growing city is putting pressure on its highway and public transportation infrastructure to accommodate what’s expected to be significant population growth over the next two decades. Both transit systems are looking down the line for possible bus and rail solutions.
Rail strength is prominent
Toronto was an early leader in North American rail transit. Its subway system, operated by the TTC, pre-dates most other major North American systems. Meanwhile, GO Transit has established many of the benchmarks for regional commuter rail transit.
GO Transit was almost ahead of its time in adoption of so-called "lozenge" double-decker cars, built by Bombardier, used in push-pull commuter transit.
Double-decker cars had been used earlier in the U.S. for both commuter (primarily in Chicago) and long-haul passenger operations. But the lozenge cars — double-deck in the middle but single-level at the ends, with transitions between cars at the standard level — offered several advantages.
Such cars could be combined in trains with single-level cars, with passengers and crew able to move throughout the entire train. (Today, GO Transit’s passenger car fleet consists entirely of Bombardier lozenge cars.) But, important in cold weather, an engineer could go from an engine at one end to a cab control car at the other end without having to leave the train. Similarly, the conductor and other crewmembers would have access to the engine, as access from cars is at the standard level.
Aesthetically and aerodynamically, the lozenge cars match better with the lower-height locomotives on commuter trains.
Today, GO Transit’s distinctive green and white push-pull trains range as far as 60 miles from the system’s Union Station hub on seven routes.
Coping with demand
Despite its success in moving great numbers of people through public transit, Toronto is experiencing growing pains as it focuses efforts on infrastructure upgrades. Both GO Transit’s commuter rail line and the TTC’s subway system are trying to cope with additional demand from the growing population of Canada’s largest city and major economic center.
Toronto has a population of 2.5 million, but the larger metropolitan area is home to 4.7 million people. The city grew substantially in 1997 and ’98, when smaller adjoining towns were consolidated into Toronto. By 2021, it’s expecting the city population to reach 3 million, a 20% increase.
GO Transit officials themselves have characterized recent problems (going back into 2006) in achieving on-time performance as being part of "growing pains." In late 2006, Canadian National (CN) signal work on the Lakeshore West line (toward Hamilton, Ontario), proved particularly disruptive.
Signal improvements (or initial installation on a previously unsignaled line) are key to improved capacity, not only allowing trains to operate at higher speeds but also on closer headways. With only minor track improvements, such as installation of switches that can be taken at higher speeds and additional crossovers between parallel tracks, dispatchers now have vastly more options for managing traffic.
Traditionally, on signaled North American freight rail lines, signal blocks (the stretch of track that can be occupied by only one train at a time) have ranged from 2 to 10 or more miles. In that situation, other than at sidings, trains operating in the same direction typically need to be spaced between 5 and 20 or more miles apart.
That situation usually works fine for mile-long, slow-moving freight trains. It’s unacceptable for short, fast-moving commuter trains on short headways during rush hours.
As most suburban commuter systems operate on rail lines owned by freight railroads, signal upgrades — and who pays for them — are a major point of contention between the transit agency and the host railroad. Yes, the signal improvements help the freight railroad gain operating flexibility, particularly outside the peak commuting hours. But the signal improvements bring more commuter traffic, which the freight railroad then has to cope with.
Just as the landmark CN Tower dominates the city’s skyline, so CN also dominates GO Transit’s network. All but one line operate in CN corridors; the remaining line uses a Canadian Pacific (CP) route.
GO Transit has, at times, had a contentious relationship with CN, particularly because CN labor disputes (and sometimes freight train derailments) impacted GO Transit operations.
Subway system at capacity
The TTC subway system has had growing pains of its own. (TTC also operates a substantial streetcar system in the city.) "The system is at capacity," says TTC spokesman Mike DeToma.
The first subway line, initially serving 12 stations, dates back to 1954. (By comparison, the San Francisco bay area’s heavy-rail BART system began operations in 1972; Washington, D.C.’s first Metro line opened in 1976.)
Today, the Toronto system has four rapid transit lines with 69 stations on 42.7 route miles of track and serves more than 1.1 million passengers on weekdays.
To revitalize its aging subway car fleet, the TTC signed a contract with Bombardier last December for 234 new subway cars (39 six-car trainsets). The base contract for the cars is valued at $499 million (Canadian), and the TTC has opted to purchase spares and additional equipment, bringing the total value of the contract to $548 million. Delivery of the cars is scheduled between 2009 and 2011.
Early subway systems had a very basic signal system focused on maintaining train separation. An almost secondary function was getting trains in and out of layover facilities. But needs to increase capacity are forcing heavy rail systems (and some light rail operators) to look at more sophisticated signal and traffic management options.
According to DeToma, TTC is now looking at fully automated train operation as one option. Transit systems around the world have successfully implemented such operations. London’s Docklands light rail (a fully grade-separated system using light equipment but powered by a third rail) was a pioneer in this area. When it opened in the 1980s, the system was plagued by problems, but those have long been resolved through better computer hardware and software.
Meanwhile, the TTC has also announced an ambitious $6 billion, 15-year plan to greatly expand its surface rail transit with seven new light rail lines that would ultimately serve 175 million customers, of which 100 million would be new transit riders.
Looking for combined support from the federal, provincial and local governments, the expanded network would require $400 million a year for that 15-year period to become reality.
With 240 new fast light rail vehicles, operating mostly on dedicated rights of way, "it will totally change the way people travel in Toronto," according to Mitch Stambler, TTC’s service planning manager.
Advanced logic aids cause
Signal systems of railroads — freight railroads in North America and railroads with a heavy mix of passenger and freight in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) — have evolved strongly toward advanced logic. These systems allow dispatchers to look hours ahead based on current and scheduled movements of trains. Thus, they can predict potential conflicts and help dispatchers set up meets at sidings in single-track territory.
In Europe, most passenger stations have multiple tracks and multiple platforms. Even a modest-sized city may have as many as a dozen platform tracks. Only a small number of North American cities have stations even approaching that category.
Among the primary European suppliers of sophisticated signal and traffic management equipment are Alstom and Siemens. Both have provided signal systems for dedicated high-speed lines — Alstom for French TGV lines and their derivatives and Siemens for German ICE lines — and both companies are trying to find new markets in the U.S.