Is diesel train for dinosaurs?

*As a disclaimer readers should be aware that their is no such thing as "Clean Diesel", it's a marketing term but make no mistake ALL diesel puts toxins in the air.

Is diesel train for dinosaurs?

Frequent travellers, critics say new airport link should follow international trend to electric trains
Tess Kalinowski Transportation Reporter
Published On Mon Oct 12 2009


He's a frequent flyer, but media executive Raymond Girard admits he's also a bit of a rail buff.

Girard enjoys riding European airport trains such as London's Heathrow Express into the city, where he can easily walk or take the subway to his hotel.

"I'm a bit of a cranky traveller, especially if I've been on an overnight flight. The last thing I want to do is deal with a taxi driver," he said.

Girard, who usually drives to the airport from his home near Avenue Rd. and St. Clair Ave. about 40 times a year, might sound like a natural client for the proposed express train service from Union Station to Pearson, which the government has contracted to Montreal engineering giant, SNC Lavalin.

He is, in fact, one more skeptic of the project, which got a green light from Ontario's environment minister Oct. 5. Girard, like many well-travelled Torontonians, wonders why Ontario hasn't followed the international trend to electric trains.

Freelance travel writer Amy Rosen wonders the same thing, though she takes a different approach to getting to the airport.

Rosen, who averages two air trips a month, hires a car service from her Little Italy home when she has an early flight. But when she has the time and only carry-on luggage, she also uses the TTC's Airport Rocket from the Kipling subway station. She also takes local transit when she lands in other cities. "If something like that's available, you'd be an idiot not to (use) it if it's that cheap or that simple," she said.

Rosen – unlike many of our politicians – isn't convinced the lack of a train link to the airport is a gaping hole in the city's amenities for travellers. Still, if Toronto wants one, why would it be diesel?

"If you could go electric, why wouldn't you?" she said.

Criticism of the air-rail link and expanded GO service on the same line has centred on the increased air pollution that will come from running more than 400 diesel trains a day on a densely populated rail corridor.

Environment Minister John Gerretsen approved the $1 billion project on condition that it uses cleaner Tier 4 diesel trains, technology still being developed.

Girard isn't convinced Toronto even has the density to support the airport service. That it will be diesel strikes him as backward.

"It drives me bananas that GO is all diesel and they're talking about (taking) 15 years to electrify the Lakeshore (line). Diesel doesn't have the cachet of European rail systems," scoffed Girard.

Electric trains are cleaner, quieter, more efficient and can accelerate faster, an important consideration. The problem is the cost. The locomotives are pricier, and then there's the cost of stringing overhead wires along the track.

Unlike India, Japan and China, Ontario remains mostly diesel. Earlier this decade, the province passed up the chance to buy cheap electric trains after a project in Mexico was cancelled, according to Greg Gormick.

"In North America, we are behind. It's always been for the same reasons: the availability of cheap oil," said Gormick, a rail consultant whose clients have included Metrolinx, the provincial agency in charge of GO.

This continent's vast geography makes hanging wires along rail lines prohibitively expensive, according to Richard Soberman, former chair of civil engineering at U of T, who now works with the TTC. Then there's the problem of providing power: Electric trains get their juice from hydro substations, unpopular in residential areas.

At the far end of the GO line, though, Georgetown residents are rubbing their hands in anticipation of all-day, two-way service, says Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnett.

"I thought electric trains might have been the way of the future. But it's still better than taking your car, so it's still a step up," Bonnett said.



"Clean diesel" trains use a technology that injects a solution into the locomotive's exhaust system to reduce emission levels.

The next generation of locomotives, which are called Tier 4 diesel and use low-sulphur fuel, is supposed to reduce particulate emissions by 90 per cent and nitrogen oxides by 80 per cent.

Though they're not yet manufactured in North America, the Ontario government has specified that they must be used on GO's expanded Georgetown line and on the airport rail link.

That's not good enough, according to the Clean Train Coalition, which represents residents living near the track to Georgetown, who say the only way to guarantee that air quality won't get worse as rail traffic rises is to use electric locomotives.

It's doubtful Tier 4 trains will even be available by the time the line begins expanded service in 2015, says the coalition's Mike Sullivan. Even if they are, transit agencies need years of lead-time to place orders.

Metrolinx CEO Robert Prichard, who is overseeing the rail expansion, believes the Tier 4 trains will be ready.

"The reality is, the engineers can make them. This is a constantly improving technology and we have five years to go," he said.

The infrastructure being built can accommodate both electric or diesel trains.

Clean Train advocates say Prichard's estimates of the cost of electrification – $1.5 billion on the Georgetown line and $7 billion to $10 billion for the entire GO system – are inflated. They claim earlier GO studies prove it.

They also argue that with fossil fuels destined to become increasingly scarce, electrification is inevitable. It makes sense to swallow the higher locomotive and infrastructure costs of electric trains now, they say.

Prichard says Metrolinx's electrification study, to be done by the end of 2010, will provide the numbers for an informed debate.

But transit advocate and blogger Steve Munro wonders if the study might be a way for Metrolinx to justify the politically tricky move of changing the existing GO plan, which calls for electrifying the already busy Lakeshore line first.

Munro also disputes Metrolinx's argument about the necessity of transit to take millions of cars off the road.

A growing GTA population will mean more cars on the road, he argues, and history shows automobile traffic expands to fill the road space available.

As well, he says, many of the off-peak GO trains won't be full, creating a higher per-person pollution profile.

– Tess Kalinowski