Metrolinx’s Plan for the Don Valley

The Metrolinx train parking lot.

Metrolinx proposes to use the Don River Valley Park to park 3 diesel trains, build a service facility and a parking lot for employees. Each train is 10 cars long and will occupy the area from viaduct over the Don river up to the Half Mile Bridge. The service facility will include fuel for water heating and cleaning capabilities. The diesel trains will be coming from Milton, Kitchener and Hamilton. 6 or 7 additional electric trains will be stored on the west side of the Don river when those rails are “electrified” up to Pottery road.

This is part of Metrolinx’s massive $16.8 Billion expansion which includes electrification of some lines and increased service along most of their lines. The full business case is about 200 pages long, and calculates $42.6 Billion worth of benefits.

Metrolinx is determined to build in the Don River Valley Park and there is little to stop them. The Ford government has eliminated much of the regulatory process. The Toronto Regional Conservation Authority’s mandate of protecting watersheds has been clipped and “community consultation” with Metrolinx is better described as “community was informed”.

However there are some key questions that need to be asked.

Impact on environment. Metrolinx says they are saving the environment and yet this project includes the expansion of diesel train service, increasing their total GhG emissions, taking urban green space and enabling the conversion of outlying farm land into low density housing. The eco-benefits, $330 million, are a fraction of the total $42.6 billion value to taxpayers. Even then the numbers are dubious. $220 million of eco-benefits are calculated as the reduction of cars in 2050 – GM plans to go electric in 2035 as do other major manufacturers. Result: Metrolinx replacing electric powered car trips with diesel powered train trips. That’s not environmental at all.

Future Ridership. “IF ridership cannot be realized, the Financial Case for GO Expansion is severely impacted. (p138 – sensitivity tests).
“A key element of the financial case for GO Expansion is that revenue exceeds operating costs over the investment period. This means farebox revenue can be used to pay for all operating costs and some capital costs.” (p137).

  • Operating margin shifts from a recovery of only 88% of total operating and maintenance costs to an operating surplus of 110% over the evaluation period (revenues equal 130% of operating costs in 2055).
  • The operating surplus can fund over 60% of the estimated incremental capital investment needed.

So how firm are these estimates?

The red line was added to Metrolinx’s critical ridership forecast (p77) to show actuals during Covid pandemic based on best available data from Metrolinx. Forecast and actuals aren’t matching up. Metrolinx is bleeding money, operating cost is above $300 per rider. The pandemic has driven a “work from home” phenomena that is not well understood. The companies that employ commuters, Metrolinx’s core customers, are re-evaluating work space, office sharing agreements, hybrid arrangements that split in-office/at home. Office space Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are paying enormous attention to what their customers are thinking and re-forecasting demand for downtown office space. If necessary, office space can be converted to condo space and the REITs will be ok. Metrolinx carries on as if nothing has changed.

The implication is that it makes it imperative for Metrolinx to re-model their 2018 forecasts with more recent data and to adopt a far less aggressive stance regarding financial risk. Say it again: If ridership cannot be realized, the Financial Case for GO Expansion is severely impacted. That’s a $16.8 Billion bet that Metrolinx is asking the Government to make using old data and the cost to Toronto is the loss of urban park space. If anything Metrolinx should be evaluating the sale of the Don Branch to the City of Toronto to improve their distressed balance sheet.

View to the east from the Don Valley recreation trail

Flooding. The Don River is a big flood plain from Pottery Road south. This has been a problem for railroads in the valley since 1892. Metrolinx makes a big deal that they are building the facility on the high ground above the flood plain – but has yet to explain how trains get there during floods? Metrolinx has alternative parking spots during floods – why not just build the facility and park the trains there in the first place?

BTW: This the flood of 2013.

Metrolinx proposes adding electric trains to this picture – what could go wrong?
So that wasn’t the first flood then?

OK, what about the park option?

I’ve read both and am ready to vote.

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