Toronto-area commuter trains to finally go electric, just not fast enough

It kills me that something as unexciting as the Pan Am Games is going to dictate how much and how fast we move to electrify commuter trains around the Toronto area. I mean, it’s great that the board of Metrolinx, the agency that runs the province’s GO Train system, said today it backs the idea of electrification. It’s also great that the first phase of this plan is to create an electric train link between downtown Toronto (Union Station) and Pearson International Airport.  What’s bothersome is that Metrolinx is going to build the airport-downtown link first to accommodate low-sulfur diesel trains in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, an event that will last for two weeks. Then they’ll transition to electric rail by 2020, starting with the airport link and expanding to other routes from there.

By rushing to establish an airport link in time for the Pan Am Games, taxpayers will have to foot an additional $400 million. This, for a sporting event that lacks the profile and prestige of an Olympics and to which few Ontarians really pay much attention. I can understand why there’s some protest of this decision, even though the decision to eventually go electric is still good news. You can get a sense of the controversy in this Toronto Star article.

Reading the Metrolinx staff report on electrification, I’m also appalled at how much they downplay the emission-reduction benefits of embracing electric trains. The report stays away from direct comparisons, which if done honestly (i.e. an electric locomotive versus a low-sulfur diesel locomotive of similar design and purpose) would show that in a province like Ontario with relatively clean electricity an electric train would have dramatically lower emissions than a low-sulfur diesel train. Instead, they focus on impact on overall emissions in the region — i.e. that going electric would only reduce emissions by .32 per cent compared to the diesel option.

This is disingenuous and deliberately aimed at skewing reports in the media, as we can see from this Toronto Sun editorial, which regurgitates the misleading claim that there are “marginal” health benefits that come from electrification. If we measured all emission-reduction strategies this way it would be meaningless to take any action. It’s no different than saying: Why should we care about the oil sands when it represents less than .1 per cent of global emissions? Why should Canada take action against climate change when we only represent 2 per cent of global emissions? Why should I butt out my cigarette when I’m the only one smoking in the daycare?

So Metrolinx, while it should be applauded for approving the move to electrification, should be criticized for taking an ass-backwards approach to it.

One thought on “Toronto-area commuter trains to finally go electric, just not fast enough”

  1. The frustration about the Pan Am games is understandable, but is it really justified? After all, in what world was there ever going to be a seemless rollout of the ideal transit system? With the way things usually get done in Toronto (and just about anywhere else besides China), the fact that they’re “rushing” the airport link is a minor miracle. In the article, they throw around the year 2030–that’s typical with major infrastructure projects. If, in 2015, there actually is an airport link, I think we’d all owe the Games our gratitude.

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