Metrolinx fails to clear the air on electric train

Metrolinx fails to clear the air on electric train

Clean Train Coalition blows the whistle on province’s diesel fix
By Roger Brook

Based strictly on appearances, it seems that the province compromises whenever it’s been on the hot seat over the controversial rail link to the airport and Georgetown GO expansion.

But does it really?

On October 6, Environment Minister John Gerretsen gave the project the green light but demanded that Metrolinx use a cleaner diesel 4 technology. The ministry says the engine revamp, in combo with low-sulphur diesel fuels, would reduce particulate matter by 90 per cent and nitrogen oxides by 80 per cent over current GO engines when the project comes online in 2015.

Sounds dramatic, but Clean Train Coalition folks aren’t holding their breath. “Diesel exhaust,” says the group’s statement, “is a known health hazard, and any further pollution in Toronto’s already overburdened airshed is not acceptable.”

But the biggest snag in the diesel 4 plan, says Clean Train’s Keith Brooks, is that these trains do not yet exist. The fact is, this tech isn’t ready and would require a costly engine rebuild that some estimate might almost double the vehicles’ current price.

When I ask James O’Mara, enviro planning and policy head at Metrolinx, for his take on the price tag, he says, “Tier 4 locomotives are not yet commercially available. Any discussion about additional cost is at best speculation in the absence of data.”

Still, Metrolinx CEO Robert Prichard has declared himself enthusiastic about the Tier 4s, arguing that it’s worth paying the price for a cleaner environment. At the same time, however, he tells anyone who will listen that electrification for Georgetown is too expensive.

How the newly named permanent head of the organization knows this is pretty unclear, since Metrolinx just announced the terms of reference for its one-year study on the possibility of electrifying the whole GO system only this past Tuesday, October 20.

Brooks says he’s shocked that Prichard gets away with slagging the electric option for this corridor without proof. “If there are numbers available,” Brooks says, “make them public.”

At the Tuesday Metrolinx meeting, the Coalition asked the org’s executive VP, Gary McNeil, to delay expenditures on diesel-only infrastructure for the Georgetown line until the results of the electrification study are known. McNeil would only agree not to do anything that would “preclude electrification.’’

Electric train proponents point out that the McGuinty government has already decided to electrify another route, the Lakeshore line, by 2020, following a study showing that diesel on this route couldn’t handle ridership increases. (Electric trains stop and start more quickly.)

Clean Train folks wonder if stonewalling on electric for the Georgetown-airport corridor might have something to do with the private Air Rail Link partnership still being negotiated between the province and SNC-Lavalin.

SNC won’t have to electrify its 140 daily trips unless it’s written in the contract and we won’t know much about these negotiations until the deal is completed.

When will that happen? Infrastructure Ontario’s Steve Dyck says, “I think we’ll know before too long.”

In terms of the ministry’s request for diesel 4 locomotives, SNC-Lavalin spokesperson Leslie Quinton cautions, “I don’t know when the industry will be ready [to produce them].”

While Metrolinx continues to block requests for public meetings on the expansion, diesel-hostile residents have hosted their own affairs. On September 26, the Coalition organized a 1,000-strong Human Train walk with neighbourhood rallies from Weston to Trinity Bellwoods.

Along the route, at Sorauren Park, politicians took turns at the mic, but provincial Liberals remained conspicuously absent, a risky move considering Tony Ruprecht (Davenport) and Laura Albanese (York South-Weston) beat challengers last election by just 5 per cent and 1.5 respectively.

Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, assured the crowd that he supports electric trains, countering a misinformation campaign by Metrolinx.

Guess you can’t pump diesel without getting dirty, but even some Liberals are now switching sides. At the rally, Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy finally came off the fence, stating “Metrolinx has breeched the trust of this community. If they say it takes a year to do a study for electric trains, then nothing should happen here for a year.”

But when he went on to praise fellow Liberals like Environment Minister Gerretsen, you should have heard the jeers. 


Metrolinx says Electrification will cost tens of billions.

Reality Experience elsewhere says it costs 100 times less. When asked to reveal cost breakdowns from the Lakeshore electrification study, Metrolinx spokesperson Jacquie Menezes suggests waiting for results from the next study in December 2010.

Metrolinx says 99 per cent of North American transit uses diesel.

Reality Of North America’s five busiest commuter lines, Metrolinx is alone in not using electric trains for all or a substantial amount of their service.

Metrolinx says That a memorandum has been signed with SNC-Lavalin for an airport rail link.

Reality The province could end private negotiations tomorrow with “no downside or penalties,” says Infrastructure Ontario’s Steve Dyck.