GO Transit: A Case Study in North American Regional Rail

A GO Train is waiting to load passengers at Toronto Union Station.

Guest post by Thor Kargatis

The GO Transit system, serving the Toronto Metropolitan region, is one of the largest and most successful modern commuter rail systems in North America. Having commenced services in 1967, it was also one of the first systems to become part of a regional transit authority. Today, three of its seven lines provide consistent, all-day service on much of their routes. However, this is changing.

Starting in the late 2010s, GO Transit began work on the most significant and far-reaching regional rail project in North America. Now well underway, the GO Expansion Project, sometimes referred to as GO-RER, will transform a primarily commuter-oriented transit system with limited regional capabilities into a fully-fledged regional rail system, with service improvements that surpass even the busiest commuter rail around New York City.

A History of GO Transit

In the early 1960s, regional planners in Toronto recognized that as the population in the area boomed, new ways of tackling traffic congestion would be needed, and that the commuter rail corridor along the shore of Lake Ontario could be crucial to this. However, the Canadian National Railway, the then-operator of the corridor, lacked the financial and operational ability to improve the service or add new lines. The government of Ontario thus decided to undertake a novel experiment—a fully provincially funded commuter rail service. Initially planned as a three-year experiment, GO Transit began operations in 1967 on what is now the Lakeshore West and East Lines; services ran hourly from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, increasing to every 20 minutes during peak hours. From 1974, the Georgetown Line (now Kitchener Line) was introduced, followed by the Richmond Hill Line in 1978. The network took its mostly current form in the 1980s with the additions of the Milton, Bradford (now Barrie), and Stouffville Lines. However, around the late 1990s, service cuts had to be made, such as the withdrawal of off-peak Milton Line service, reducing it to a peak-hour/peak-direction only route, and the truncation of the Barrie Line (though this has since been restored). In 2009, GO Transit was reorganized under Metrolinx, a new agency created to integrate transportation planning in southern Ontario. This set the stage for the greatest transformation of Toronto area transit since GO’s inception.

GO in the 21st Century: The Upper Echelons of Commuter Rail

Today’s GO Transit service consists of seven lines. The Lakeshore West and East lines run to Hamilton and Oshawa respectively, with a small number of Lakeshore West trains running all the way to Niagara Falls. These are the oldest lines on the system, are the most used, and have the best frequencies (up to six trains per hour between Oakville and Toronto at peak periods). The existing all-day service is rounded off by the portion of the Kitchener Line as far as Bramlea.

The rest of the GO system currently has limitations on the service it can provide. The Milton and Richmond Hill lines operate on tracks owned by CPKC and Canadian National, the two largest Class I railroads in Canada, which are reluctant to accommodate regional rail service or upgrade the infrastructure. As such, these two lines are restricted to service in the peak direction only. The final two lines, Barrie and Stouffville, are capable of running hourly service throughout the day. However, due to the presence of many single-track sections, services in the non-peak direction are eschewed in favor of more frequency on the higher-demand peak services.

There are two less frequent intercity GO train services in the current timetable: A small number of trains run to the end of the Kitchener Line at Kitchener, and three round-trips each day run on an extension of the Lakeshore West Line to Niagara Falls.

A Revitalized Network for a Revitalized Region

The current projects underway at GO Transit and its parent agency, Metrolinx, are actively transforming the bulk of the network into a modern, electrified regional rail network to match the caliber of service found on world-class regional rail systems such as the Paris RER, the numerous German “S-Bahn” networks, and the electrified rail networks surrounding large Australian cities.

Currently, planning and construction are underway to electrify the Barrie, Stouffville, and Lakeshore East lines in their entirety, while the Lakeshore West and Kitchener lines will be electrified as far as Burlington and Bramalea, respectively. Along with electrification, the Barrie and Stouffville lines are being double tracked throughout, allowing service in the non-peak direction to run regularly. These double tracked, electrified sections will have an all-day service of four trains per hour (every 15 minutes, the current peak frequency on the Lakeshore East Line), with service increasing further still in peak periods. Outside the electrification zone, further service improvements are being made: west of Bramalea, the non-electrified sections of the Kitchener Line are having more passing sidings added, allowing all-day service to Kitchener. Service is also being added on the Lakeshore West Line all the way to Niagara Falls, though in a more incremental fashion.

Toronto Union Station is also undergoing a major revitalization project to add capacity for the new high-frequency services. Like Pennsylvania Station in New York City, Toronto Union is plagued by narrow platforms that struggle to safely handle large volumes of passengers and significantly increase dwell times. The remedy comes in the form of two new island platforms to handle high-frequency, through running regional trains. These new platforms will be wide enough for passengers to wait for trains on the platform, as opposed to several trains’ worth of passengers crowding into the station concourse, which will significantly increase passenger throughput and reduce dwell times. Once all the planned upgrades are complete, Metrolinx plans to nearly triple total GO Transit service to 10,000 trains per week, up from 3,500 in 2019.

The Birth of New Communities

The expansion of GO Transit is reshaping Toronto’s suburbs. Even as the new lines are still under construction, new neighborhoods that are dense, walkable, and more livable are taking shape around GO stations and along local bus and light rail lines intersecting with them. The dreary exurban expanses of strip malls, single-family homes, and seemingly endless parking lots that surrounded commuter-only stations are giving way to new high-rise residential towers atop new businesses and institutions.

At Pickering on the Lakeshore East Line, a 55-acre master plan for the new Pickering Town Center adjacent to the station is in the works. It will contain a new city hall, public library, multiple shopping malls, and a new campus for the University of Toronto and several other schools and colleges. Ten residential skyscrapers will rise above the town center, providing no less than 6,000 new housing units, all of which will be within walking distance of all-day, every-15-minute regional rail service with easy access to downtown Toronto and the rest of the region.

At the Stouffville Line stations in Markham, parking lots and greenfield sites will soon give way to new housing; five mixed-use high rises are being planned at Mount Joy; and the new Markham campus of York University was recently completed at Unionville, with more high-density development expected on the vacant land and parking lots around the station. Similar construction is taking place at several stations in Mississauga, such as Mimico, and the Milton Line stations at Cooksville and Kipling.

Perhaps the most impressive developments are at the Toronto stations to be shared with the new Ontario Line subway, Exhibition and East Harbour. Exhibition, with its large, glass-vaulted roof reminiscent of contemporary European central stations, and its six tracks for both GO trains and the Ontario Line, is certain to turn heads in the North American transit world. But the excitement hardly stops at the station forecourt. The station is to be flanked by four new mixed-use towers in the already well-developed Liberty Village neighborhood; these new buildings will contain nearly  , and nearly 600 housing units. Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario estimate that 12,000 people will live within walking distance of Exhibition station.

Even more impressive is the East Harbour development being built along with a brand new station of the same name east of Toronto Union. With 15 high-rise buildings up to 65 stories tall, East Harbour is expected to be one of the largest single-employment nodes in the region, and it is the largest commercial development in Canada. The neighborhood is expected to host 50,000 jobs over 10 million square feet of office space, in addition to 4,000 brand new housing units. The development is also prioritizing the availability of public space, with nine acres of parkland sharing the former industrial site with the skyscrapers, and creating a people-centric street layout encompassing the development and the station. This massive spurt of development will allow many more Toronto-area residents to live and work close to high-frequency, electric rapid transit, and help alleviate the region’s acute housing shortage.

Lessons for North America

Mass transit’s detractors say that large mass-transit projects and walkable communities “can’t be done” in North America. Yet, Toronto—a North American city with quintessentially North American problems—is actively building a true regional rail network on par with many European cities. The effective modernization of once-unremarkable commuter rail lines has started to show itself, new stations on the Stouffville line are operating, and the Lakeshore East line already runs a 15-minute service at peak times. Upzoning efforts around stations are already bearing fruit, with tower cranes looming above former parking lots and new apartments coming on to the market. This is all happening in a metro area that isn’t half a world away, and exists in much the same economic and political climate as our own cities do.

With their implementation of fast, frequent, and electrified regional rail well underway, Metrolinx and the Toronto region as a whole are not only leading by example but proving to the rest of the continent that regional rail is both feasible and a worthwhile investment. Many North American cities have extensive commuter rail systems that have much in common with pre-expansion GO. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston all have several diesel-hauled commuter lines with a small number of common downtown termini. New York and Washington, D.C. already have some of the infrastructure to facilitate through-running; all that is required is a little “joined-up thinking,” as the British call it. These cities can look to Toronto to see well-executed planning decisions that greatly enhance rail service and contribute to greater connectivity, affordability, and livability in the region.

As climate change, municipal budgets, and homebuyer preferences shift focus away from single-family homes towards denser, transit-oriented communities, regional rail will become a crucial backbone of sustainable cities and suburbs. The GO expansion provides a model for other cities to follow—and proves that even we North Americans can have nice things.

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