Diesel vs. electric trains: study vindicates Clean Train Coalition on debate over rail line to Pearson (but the province is buying diesel cars anyway)

Diesel vs. electric trains: study vindicates Clean Train Coalition on debate over rail line to Pearson (but the province is buying diesel cars anyway)

Finally, a transit story that has absolutely nothing to do with Transit City.

This one’s about a basic disagreement over technology choices and hasty cost-cutting by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty. In order to build a rail link between Pearson and Union Station in time for the Pan Am Games, Metrolinx has chosen to run diesel-powered trains through neighbourhoods where 25,000 schoolchildren play. Local activists, primarily the Clean Train Coalition, have been trying to get the province to consider electric trains instead.  Today, they were (slightly) vindicated by a report from Metrolinx that recommends electrification—but not until 2017.

We spoke with Keith Brooks, spokesperson for the Clean Train Coalition, who describes the report as a “partial victory.” The CTC still intends to hold the province’s feet to the fire on this issue, because there are so many questions left. Particularly, why the province keeps saying there are “marginal” environmental and health benefits, a claim Brooks thinks is dubious.

“Sure, when they [Metrolinx] talk about regional benefits it’s less of a difference. But our concern is the local pollution and the people who live in neighbourhoods in close proximity to the train line,” says Brooks. “Exhaust is exhaust.”

The Metrolinx report vindicates a number of claims by the CTC: that electric rail would be cheaper to run, allow better service, and be cleaner. But all the vindication comes grudgingily: while Metrolinx describes the greenhouse gas reductions as “marginal” because GO’s share of emissions in the province is so small, the report points out that electrification would reduce GO’s GHG emissions by 94 per cent. If that’s marginal, we’d love to see what the province thinks is “substantial.”

So with the CTC having seemingly won the argument on the merits, Queen’s Park is going ahead and buying diesel trains from a Japanese company anyway. This means that the province will pay twice—once for diesel trains, and again when they replace them with electric trains—all is now in a headlong rush to build something, anything, in time for 2015.

Of course, that’s assuming that it goes forward at all. No matter what the McGuinty government starts or plans, recent events prove that elections—like the one Ontario will have in October—can change everything.

• Electrification Study [GO Transit]

UPDATE:  We spoke with Ian McConachie of Metrolinx, who had several responses to the CTC’s victory dance. Most regrettably, we were in error when we wrote that the diesel trains Metrolinx is buying would have to be replaced—in fact, the trains will be convertible to electric when the rail lines themselves are ready for them. The costs of conversion, however, are still unknown as Metrolinx is still in negotiation with Sumitomo. McConachie’s more fundamental point was to stress that Metrolinx simply can’t build an electric rail line in time for the 2015 Pan Am games. The environmental assessment process—the bane of infrastructure-builders everywhere—means that “even if we spent $10 billion, we still wouldn’t have something ready for the Pan Am Games.”  Upgrading GO is a long-term project that includes replacing rail stock to cleaner-burning diesel, and improving service levels so that “GO becomes more like a subway, where you don’t check the schedule before you go to the station.”  Metrolinx, McConachie says, never claimed that electrification wouldn’t improve service or be cheaper to operate, simply that it couldn’t be built in the timeframe they need. (January 19 at 3:53 p.m.)