Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How John Tory Can Get Out of Building SmartTrack While Still Building SmartTrack

When Mayor John Tory was campaigning for his position, a key part of his platform was that he would solve Toronto's transportation issues by building a transit system called SmartTrack. Unfortunately, SmartTrack never made much sense as a transit plan: it's expensive for the limited transit benefits it provides; it's unlikely to deliver any of its promised benefits; and it's not actually within the the mayor's powers to build it. In fact, the majority of Toronto voters voted for candidates who wanted to build an alternate transit plan, the Downtown Relief Line, instead. But as a major campaign promise, he has to deliver something, but it doesn't make sense for Toronto to waste money building SmartTrack. A wily politician would be able to get out of that promise without wasting all that money. But how can John Tory "build" SmartTrack without actually building it? Or, alternately, how can John Tory get out of spending all the money and political capital needed to implement his SmartTrack plan while still being able to face voters at the next election and claim that he's building it?

This blog post will look at what SmartTrack is, why it won't work, and how John Tory can get out of building it.

Why People Want SmartTrack

On it's surface, the SmartTrack proposal sounds pretty promising. SmartTrack is supposedly able to provide a fast, frequent, high capacity train service that covers most of the city and links together several major employment centers in the GTA such as downtown, business parks near the airport, and business parks in Markham. By taking advantage of existing railway tracks and unused lands throughout the city, the system can supposedly be built quickly and affordably. Who wouldn't want something like that? If you can build a useful transit service for not a lot of money, why woudn't you do that?

The full system is 53km long and is comprised of 22 stations. It runs along "unused land" between the Airport Corporate Centre eastwards towards the Kitchener GO train line. From there, it follows the same path to Union Station in downtown. From Union Station, SmartTrack would extend north-east along the same path as the Stoufville GO train line up to the in-development Markham downtown. The whole plan would supposedly only cost $8 billion dollars and be built in under seven years.

Why SmartTrack Doesn't Work

When SmartTrack was proposed, many people were confused because transit planners had never proposed building such a system before. Since the proposal was new, no one had actually studied whether it would be possible to actually build it, so no one could intelligently argue against it. On the surface, it seems like it could be feasible. Don't we already have train tracks running through Toronto? Surely, we could just build a bunch of stations and run a service on them?

In reality though, the reason that no transit planner had ever proposed such a system before was that it wasn't that useful and it's much more difficult to build than suggested. No one had done a formal study of the issue, so no one could authoritatively criticize of the project. But just by looking at maps, looking at ridership numbers of existing services, and by listening to details that transit planners have made in the past about the capacity of the existing train track, it was pretty clear that SmartTrack would not be an easy system to build and run. I suspect that the transit planners for the provincial government could have easily rebutted the claims made about SmartTrack, but they were told to keep quiet so as to not interfere with the election.

So why isn't SmartTrack feasible? Well, let's look at its promises:

  • Lots of Stations: One of the claimed benefits of SmartTrack is that there would be lots of stations around the city where people can get on the train. The problem with having lots of stations is that when a train is stopped at a station, no other train can pass by. On a subway or LRT, this isn't a problem, but SmartTrack runs along other people's train tracks, and those owners won't be happy if their trains have to stop every few hundred metres while the SmartTrack train pulls into station after station. SmartTrack probably can't get approval for building so many stations unless they also build a lot of extra traffic so that SmartTrack trains don't interfere with existing trains using the track.
  • Frequent Service: SmartTrack supposedly will offer "frequent" service. When people think of frequent service, they usually think of a subway-like service that comes every 5 minutes. In reality, SmartTrack would at best be able to offer service every 15 minutes, and service would most likely only be able to reach 30 minute intervals. If you have a choice between waiting 30 minutes for a train or just taking the local bus that comes every 5 minutes, most people would rather take the bus. The reason that SmartTrack is so infrequent is that the train tracks have limited capacity. Just because a train track exists, doesn't mean you can just run an infinite number of trains on it. Trains take a while to speed up and slow down, so you need to carefully manage the trains to prevent them from colliding into each other. Although it's possible to increase the capacity of the system through electrification, improved signalling, better train management, and building more track, these aren't straight-forward changes to make. The other problem with frequent service is that running a frequent service is expensive, and there likely isn't enough demand to justify running that many trains. This is discussed in more detail later on.
  • Fast: SmartTrack is supposedly faster than other transit alternatives because it runs on its own train track and doesn't have to worry about traffic lights or car traffic. Although that is true, the SmartTrack train has a lot of train stations. Because trains have steel wheels, they don't have much traction, so they are slow to speed up and slow down. The more stations there are, the more time it has to spend slowing down at each stop, waiting for passengers, and then speeding up again. With so many stations, SmartTrack will likely be a lot slower than promised. It will almost definitely be slower than driving.
  • Cheap to Build: Because SmartTrack runs along an existing rail corridor and other unused land, it will supposedly be cheap to build. If you don't need to build new tunnels or bridges, then it should be pretty cheap to build, right? The SmartTrack plan says that it can be built for only about $8 billion (still a HUGE sum of money). The problem, though, is that the existing rail corridor might not have the capacity to handle all the SmartTrack trains, so to make room for the SmartTrack trains, you would have to build a lot of new tunnels and bridges. The railway corridor on the eastern leg of SmartTrack only has a single track, so to expand it to support SmartTrack will require expropriating land, adding extra track, and building new tunnels and bridges when it crosses roads. The western leg of SmartTrack is already jammed with trains, so new track might need to be built there. The western track extension to the airport is supposed to run on unused land, but that land is now being used by condo projects. The downtown leg of SmartTrack is so near to capacity that the province was thinking of diverting trains to an alternate train station or building a giant tunnel in the future. Adding SmartTrack to downtown could exceed the capacity of those lines and force the building of those expensive projects.
  • Useful: Well, SmartTrack might be expensive and might not be as quick or as frequent as promised, but it would still be a nice service to have, right? True, but SmartTrack will be an expensive service to run, and it's not clear how many people will actually use it. GO Transit already runs trains along that route. Although it doesn't have that many stops and doesn't come too frequently, we can look at its ridership numbers to give us an idea of how much demand there might be for train service along that route. Those trains carry the highest demand part of the line: passengers commuting to downtown during peak periods. The reality is that there isn't that much demand. Although traffic in the northwest and northeast parts of the city isn't great, it still usually makes more sense to drive there than to take the train. Those parts of the city were specifically designed for driving and have a decent road system. Is it worthwhile spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to run a service that won't be used by that many people? 
  • Quick to Build: One of the strangest parts of SmartTrack is that John Tory was promising to build it at all. It's strange because it's not within his power to build it. SmartTrack will run along a rail corridor that belongs to the province and some private companies. It's a variation of an existing train service that is owned and run by the province. The bulk of the financing is supposed to come from the federal and provincial governments. It's not clear what the city would contribute and how it would be within its power to build and run such a service. It would be as if John Tory made a campaign promise that Air Canada would run more frequent flights between Toronto and Windsor, using funding from the federal government. Although more frequent flights would be nice for the city, the mayor has no influence over Air Canada or the federal government. How could he make a promies on behalf of someone else?
The main problem with SmartTrack though is that it has been made completely redundant by the province's plans for a Regional Express Rail train running along mostly the same route. The Regional Express Rail train provides many of the same benefits of SmartTrack but is much cheaper (in fact, the province does not expect any financial contributions from the city beyond, perhaps, moving some utilities).

How to Get Out of Building SmartTrack

Given all the problems with the SmartTrack proposal, how can the mayor get out of building it? With the right messaging, it shouldn't be too hard. The province has seen that the mayor has painted himself into a corner and has provided him with ways to make a face-saving exit. But the mayor seems oblivious to this and is mishandling his communication in such a way that he can't change direction.

The province has seen the mayor's problems, and they have started building their own transit system that provides 70-80% of the benefits of SmartTrack at absolutely no cost to the city of Toronto. The Ontario government's Regional Express Rail project was originally supposed to only serve the west of the city. It provides fast service to a smaller number of stations along the same route as SmartTrack. In light of SmartTrack, the provincial government has decided to extend it to the east of the city along the same route as SmartTrack (even though existing ridership numbers didn't justify the building of such an extension) and they decided to add several new stations. They're also strongly considering the electrification of the tracks even though earlier studies suggested that it would be more beneficial to electrify a different set of tracks. Regional Express Rail makes SmartTrack a redundant transit service. Why spend money building SmartTrack if it duplicates an existing transit service? If John Tory were to do absolutely nothing, then he would get most of the benefits of his system without having to spend any money or political capital. The province will build it for him. But if he does nothing, he looks like he's abandoning his campaign promise. How can John Tory back off from building SmartTrack without looking like he's abandoning his campaign promise?

It's all about messaging. Instead of focusing on SmartTrack as a specific plan involving 53km of track and 22 stations, John Tory can redefine SmartTrack so that it can include the Regional Express Rail. He can define it as a plan to leverage Toronto's existing rail corridors to help move  Torontonians through the city. Instead of specifically requiring a heavy rail link to the airport business centres, he can just say something like, "we need to find a way to connect downtown with other important employment centers throughout the city, including Markham and the airport area." Instead of requiring there to be 22 stations, he can just say that that the existing rail corridors don't serve Torontonians well because there aren't enough stations. Instead of SmartTrack being a specific transit plan, he can describe SmartTrack as being "smart" about taking advantage of Toronto's existing infrastructure to quickly build new infrastructure connecting as much of the city as possible. In particular, instead of getting the city's planners to study the building of the specific SmartTrack plan (a mistake he already made, unfortunately), he should have told the city's planners to come up with a plan that would leverage Toronto's existing rail corridors to better connect downtown with with other employment centres thoughout the city. He should define SmartTrack in terms of the outcomes and the benefits it will provide instead of implementation. He should focus on the ends, not the means. That way, any transit plan that delivers the same benefits can be labelled as "SmartTrack." By defining SmartTrack more generally, it gives him more leeway to alter the plan to accomodate the realities on the ground.

It also allows him to build something cheaper while still "building SmartTrack." For example, building a light rail to the airport is much cheaper and more appropriate than an underground heavy rail line. By defining SmartTrack in terms of "connecting other employment centers to downtown," then he could build credibly build a light rail line while still claiming it to be part of SmartTrack. By defining SmartTrack as "leveraging the existing train tracks that cross the city to provide better transit service for Torontonians" then he could get the TTC to pay the province to build more Regional Express Rail stations in Toronto and to let TTC riders ride it while paying a regular TTC fare. The outcome is the same, and he can apply his political pressure to ensure that the final Regional Express Rail system is good for Torontonians, but the actual financial and political cost is much less. And at the end of the seven years, he can still take credit for "building SmartTrack" even though the final system might not be exactly what he promised on the campaign.

The original SmartTrack plan promised by John Tory has been made redundant by other transit systems being built by the province. He needs a way to back out of those plans without looking like he's abandoning his promise. He can do that by redefining SmartTrack in terms of its outcomes instead of its implementation. By describing SmartTrack in terms of how it will help Torontonians move through the city instead of as a specific set of stations and train lines, he gains the flexibility needed to adapt the plan to the changing circumstances.