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That time GO Transit almost went electric

Posted by Chris Bateman / July 3, 2014

toronto go alrtGO Transit has been promising to electrify its trains for a long time--the provincial Liberals have promised to get it done (eventually) and mayoral candidate John Tory is making "surface subways," electrified portions of the Metrolinx network, part of his 2014 election platform.

The idea isn't a new one. One of the first incarnations of high-speed, non-diesel GO transit surfaced in 1982 with the announcement of GO-Advanced Light Rapid Transit (ALRT)--a plan to install trains similar to the ones used on the Scarborough RT on a pair of east-west routes through the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The result would have been a second tier of GO transit, smaller in capacity but faster and more frequent than regular inter-city service--roughly every 5 minutes, down from 20.

At the time of the announcement under premier Bill Davis, GO was paying steep rental fees to share rail lines with CN freight locomotives. By buying up land parallel to the CNR line, GO predicted it could save millions in charges and boost reliability at the same time.

The basic concept originated from a very Toronto pastime--idly drawing transit lines on a map. Provincial minister of transportation James Snow was returning from a fishing trip in Halifax in the summer of 1981 when he and a colleague discussed the idea of a new type of rapid transit for the GTHA.

"Flying home, he and his deputy minister, Harold Gilbert, started talking about Toronto's commuter transit problems," Mark Osbaldeston recalls in Unbuilt Toronto 2. "Using magic markers and some handy maps, they blocked out a solution, a route for a commuter transit network serving the GTA and beyond."

toronto go alrt mapThe result was a plan for two lines: one in a new right-of-way between Oshawa and Hamilton and another parallel to the 401 corridor between Oakville and Pickering with a spur to Pearson Airport. The trains would be similar to the ones the province's Urban Transportation Development Corporation had developed for the Scarborough RT, minus the futuristic magnetic induction motors.

Like the Scarborough Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS,) the GO-ALRTs would be computer controlled and operated on an elevated guideway at speeds of up to 70 km/h. (As Transit Toronto notes, the trains would later go through several design changes, starting off similar in appearance to the ICTS and later appearing as longer, articulated vehicles with seating for more than 120.)

The whole thing--trains, track, land--was projected to cost about $3 billion and it take 20 years to fully complete.

The first phase would see the existing Lakeshore GO line extended beyond its eastern terminus at Pickering to Oshawa by 1988. The first electric trains would only operate between those two stops. Later, at the west end of the line, ALRVs would run between Oakville and Hamilton while a downtown link track through Toronto's Union Station was under construction.

Premier Davis predicted 22,000 people would ride the Pickering-Oshawa extension every day, 12,000 between Oakville and Hamilton. The entire GO network carried about 100,000 daily in Nov. 1983, but traffic was becoming an increasingly pressing issue in Toronto. In an attempt to better integrate the TTC and proposed GO-ALRT, officials discussed establishing a single fare for the two systems.

While the eastern portion of the new Lakeshore line was broadly welcomed, the Hamilton end became mired in trouble. The proposed route would have taken the ALRT down Highway 403, through a brand new park, under the city cemetery, into the downtown at the expense of 11 houses. Local residents formed a protest group called "NO-ALRT" in opposition to the alignment, much to the frustration of transportation minister Snow.

If Hamilton chooses "a white elephant route that doesn't meet transportation standards, that's no good to us," he said.

toronto go alrtThe Pickering-Oshawa extension broke ground in June 1984, but costs were already creeping up. The $162 million budget for the 25-km extension hit $350 million before shovels entered the ground. Snow put on a brave face, dismissing observers who predicted the ALRT would soon be nixed. "My faith in the feasibility of an electrified rail system running along the lake shore ... with links to municipal transit and a second inter-regional line stretching north across Metro remains unshaken," he said as the bulldozers began their work.

Like so many GTA transit plans, the ALRT was killed by a change in the political climate. By 1985, premier Bill Davis was out, as was transportation minister James Snow. The incoming ministers cancelled the electric trains, opting instead for diesel. They did, however, decide to keep the east-west Lakeshore GO corridor extension, saving $100 million and speeding up the opening date.

On his blog, Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro says the GO-ALRT was "flawed at heart."

"There is a long history of our transportation plans and needs being highjacked or misdirected, and GO-ALRT was a classic example," he wrote in 2007. "On the premise that nothing could fill the place between a bus and a subway at reasonable cost, Queen's Park set out to invent a new transit mode, to fill a "missing link" in the evolution of transit."

"The GO-ALRT network was visionary in hoping to build regional infrastructure before the regions actually existed, but it foundered on the need for a new technology to be developed, perfected and implemented at reasonable cost."

As Osbaldeston writes in Unbuilt Toronto 2, the scheduling problem with CN trains also conveniently vanished in the mid-1980s, taking with it the main justification for the dedicated right-of-way.

"GO-ALRT had become a solution to a problem that no longer existed."

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: "GO-ALRT," 1983, City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 597, Item 38; "The GO-ALRT program: Status Report," June 30, 1983, Toronto Public Library, 385.22097 G566; Toronto Star, June 20, 1984, A26.



Safe Hands / July 3, 2014 at 11:20 am
This times for real! Kathleen Wynne has promised us all electric go trains that will run every 15 minutes!

Let's do this Kathleen. You promised.
Jacob replying to a comment from Safe Hands / July 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm
Just make sure not to vote-in another party in 4 years, then. A political change of hands is a PROVEN, GUARANTEED death sentence for any sort of transportation infrastructure project in this province.
Moaz Ahmad / July 3, 2014 at 01:14 pm
This says it well: "The basic concept originated from a very Toronto pastime--idly drawing transit lines on a map." This says it better: "Queen's Park set out to invent a new transit mode, to fill a "missing link" in the evolution of transit." This says it best: "The GO-ALRT network...foundered on the need for a new technology to be developed, perfected and implemented at reasonable cost." The Ontario government should never have gotten itself into the business of manufacturing buses (Ontario Bus Industries, later Orion, later Daimler Bus North America and now defunct) and trains (Urban Transportation Development Corp. later sold to Bombardier).
W. K. Lis / July 3, 2014 at 02:42 pm
To think that the Progressive Conservatives were, at one time, very pro-transit. It has been only in the last couple of decades that the PC's turned into an anti-transit political party. Hopefully, with a change in leadership, we'll return to the golden years of yesterday and a pro-transit PC party.
realityCheck / July 3, 2014 at 04:37 pm
Of all the transit schemes that have been recently floated for improving GTA transit, this would be the most significant and cost-effective improvement by far. If Metrolinx actually knew anything about transit, this would have been something they looked at years ago... rather than just getting to it now.
scottd / July 3, 2014 at 10:36 pm
Moaz Ahmad / July 3, 2014 at 11:35 pm
Amazing is that 30 years later we're only *just* building rapid transit on a small part of the corridors that GO ALRT would have run on...the Mississauga BRT / transitway.
Pat / July 5, 2014 at 09:49 pm
Four words: Auto industry, Gas industry. These factors are the culprit and have set us back 25+ years by holding our infrastructure and transit hostage.
Jordan Kerim / March 5, 2015 at 12:06 am
GO ALRT was a project that was truly ahead of its time.

The bottom line is that the provincial government could have easily gone with off the shelf transit technology. If the GO ALRT system were built now I would say make use of the Bombardier Talent train, where they are currently used for Ottawa's O Train service. The Talent train can also run under either diesel electric power or under electric power from an overhead catenary, as the Talent trains have even wider use in parts of Europe.

This is a plan that makes people think big and dream big. A plan that could properly link the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area together, or dare I say Greater Golden Horseshoe.

We have been set back many times in the past worse yet with the termination of GO ALRT and Metro Toronto's Network 2011 plan, two key plans that crumbled during the mid 1980s.

A Greater Toronto Area wide rapid transit style system that could get people to Pearson Airport and suburban metropolitan centres from a wider reach of the GTA I am sure would be greatly welcomed.

A rapid transit system that could get peoople from suburb to suburb points, not just as GO Transit is now where it is just in and out of the downtown core of Toronto.

This is not about this little subway extension or that little busway somewhere in the 905. We have to step back and look at the bigger picture.

A Metro North line and Lakeshore line with frequent electrified Bombardier Talent trains I am sure would be of a great benefit to this city region and others as well. We have set back our transit plans long enough, and of course there is a lot of catching up we must undertake.

I support seeing the GTA being finally properly linked together by some sort of proper regional rapid transit style service similar to the Bay Area's BART train or Hong Kong's MTR train.

And perhaps doing the GO ALRT plan with Talent trains will get us there. Our transit future is waiting for us, so then what are we waiting for?

Until Next Time..

- Jordan Kerim
KD / May 7, 2015 at 11:51 am
Jordan Kerim, I couldnt say it better myself. The problem that we have with the current plan is that it fail to address true regional rapid transit from suburb to suburb. Although I welcome the announcement of REX, these rail corridor are all focused on downtown to suburbs commute. The GTA needs options to link the 905 suburbs with true rapid transit, not some silly BRT proposal.
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