Toronto Ontario - With 2.8 million residents, Toronto is Canada's biggest city, and it's only getting bigger.
The city's larger metropolitan region, the greater Toronto and Hamilton area (GHTA), boasts a population of more than 7.1 million.
By 2041, that figure is projected to grow to more than 10 million people.
As the number of GHTA residents continues to grow, the province of Ontario is launching a plan to boost GO Transit's commuter rail service in the region.
The GO Regional Express Rail (RER) project calls for electrifying core segments of GO Transit's network and performing hundreds of other infrastructure upgrades.
The goal is to transform GO's rail system from a primarily peak-hour commuter service to a high-frequency, all-day service.
By 2025, Ontario aims to run trains every 15 minutes in each direction on key system segments.
In total, GO RER would boost the number of weekly GO Transit trains from 1,500 to 6,000.
The largest transit infrastructure program in Canadian history, the $21.3 billion RER plan encompasses more than 500 separate projects across 40 municipalities.
Ontario is providing $13.5 billion toward the program, which includes procuring 52 new trainsets, adding 93 miles of GO tracks, and building 22 stations.
Rolling out a program of that magnitude has posed a host of challenges, such as maintaining existing service levels and minimizing impacts on local communities.
Officials at the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and GO Transit parent agency Metrolinx say they're doing what they can to mitigate those challenges and prepare for major service upgrades.
With about 100,000 people moving to the GHTA each year, the added capacity soon will be a necessity, says Ontario Minister of Transportation Kathryn McGarry.
"We're experiencing really unprecedented growth, and we've learned that building after the fact is always more expensive and more disruptive," she says.
"We felt that making the right investments ahead of when we need it is the best option. We've really taken a long-term approach to providing more transit options in the community."
The high-frequency service also could persuade some commuters to choose public transit over their cars, which could help reduce gridlock on Ontario's Highway 401, a main truck corridor.
And the more people choose to commute by rail, the less environmental impact they'll have on the region, McGarry says.
"Electrifying means we are taking care of the environment, and that's incredibly important to young people," she adds.
But with a bustling commuter rail system already in use, it'll take delicate planning to ensure the project is delivered with minimal negative impacts.
In fiscal year 2016-2017, GO Transit's commuter rail network served 57.5 million riders, up from 53.8 million passengers in FY 2015-2016.
On an average weekday, the 281 mile system serves more than 200,000 riders.
"The biggest challenge Metrolinx faces is working in what we call a live environment, that is, building new and upgrading existing track and stations while running an active commuter rail service," said Metrolinx Chief Capital Officer Peter Zuk in an email. Witness implementing GO RER projects along the highly trafficked Stouffville GO corridor.
Trains on that route carry around 15,000 passengers each weekday.
To address increasing ridership, Metrolinx is considering running "even more intensive service on this route, perhaps every 10 minutes," Zuk said.
And while much of the corridor runs through commercial and industrial areas, some sections pass through residential zones, which means the agency needs to be mindful of noise.
More trains also mean more potential safety risks at grade crossings.
"With trains every few minutes, each way, there will be road traffic impacts, and we are looking at how we can build more grade separations," Zuk said.
To lessen the impact on drivers and rail passengers, Ontario and Metrolinx provide notices about road closures or rail service interruptions.
The agency also plans to build two new stations in north-central Scarborough along the Stouffville corridor.
With light rail and subway stations in the area, the new GO Transit stops will provide additional transit access for thousands of residents in Scarborough and the York Region.
Station Work Underway
To make way for an influx of new commuters, Ontario plans to widen platforms at Toronto's Union Station, a key commuter rail hub and choke point.
Ninety one percent of train commuters travel to and from that station, according to GO Transit's January 2018 fact sheet.
In addition, Metrolinx has awarded a $254.5 million contract to the Ellis Don Transit Infrastructure team to design, build, and finance Stouffville line station improvements that'll support future RER upgrades.
The contract calls for upgrades to tracks, platforms, and amenities at the Milliken, Agincourt, and Unionville GO stations on the line.
The project also calls for a rail overpass as part of a grade separation at Steeles Avenue in Toronto's Scarborough area.
To keep the public apprised of the Stouffville line upgrades and other RER projects, Metrolinx continues to meet with elected officials and community stakeholders.
The agency also hosts "pop-up" meetings, town-hall-style question-and-answer sessions with residents, and continues to solicit feedback.
Metrolinx even live streams its "Ask Metrolinx" events on YouTube.
"We're committed to working with the communities impacted by GO RER every step of the way to ensure we're making the best decisions possible," Zuk said.
A New Approach
Meanwhile, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation is exploring some unconventional approaches to electrification.
Earlier this year, the ministry released a report on the technical and economic feasibility of using hydrogen powered trains in lieu of traditional overhead wires.
Currently, GO's locomotives are powered by diesel engines.
The hydrogen power approach would involve generating electricity using hydrogen that's stored onboard a train.
Since the hydrogen powered option wouldn't require overhead wires, there would be less infrastructure to build at the outset, McGarry says.
"Hydrogen fuel cell trains are something that's been considered for a while," she adds.
"The technology is emerging, and other jurisdictions are starting to look at it, such as Europe."
The ministry's report found that the lifetime cost of building and operating a hydrogen powered rail system is comparable to conventional electrification.
Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Ernst & Young Orenda Corporate Finance Inc., and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories prepared the study for Metrolinx.
The study showed it's "worthwhile to take a more in-depth look at using hydrogen fuel cell powered rail vehicles to electrify the GO Transit network," said Metrolinx President and Chief Executive Officer Phil Verster in a press release.
With recent advances in hydrogen fuel cells in other places around the world, it's "important that Metrolinx considers this clean technology," Zuk added.
"However, the study report also recommends more investigative work is needed to mitigate risks."
Additional Investigative Work
Commissioning design concepts for a hydrogen fuel cell pilot locomotive and developing concept designs for a bi-level electric multiple unit.
As a result, Ontario continues to work with train makers Alstom and Siemens to produce designs that incorporate hydrogen fuel cells into bi-level trains.
The province expects to decide whether to go ahead with the hydrogen powered trains in about a year, McGarry says.
In the interim, GO RER will proceed full-speed ahead.
On 26 Mar 2018 Metrolinx announced plans to issue a Request For Qualifications to select a contractor to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the overall program.
The contract would integrate rail operations and maintenance with the infrastructure and vehicle upgrades needed to deliver the electrified rail service.
For many Torontonians, any movement on GO RER is a welcome development, McGarry says.
"I would say, generally speaking, people are very excited about this project," she says.
"It really ticks off a lot of the boxes in terms of providing more transit options to people."