On April 19, Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario announced that a consortium of seven contractors, all under the name ONxpress, had won the estimated $1.6 billion contract to electrify the GO train commuter network in southern Ontario. The promise of this project is that, once work finishes in 2032, there will be 15-minute, or better, all-day service on the core GO train lines — mostly delivered on electrical rail.
While awarding the contract was an important step forward, it was also a very slow one. Metrolinx, an arm’s length provincial transit agency, has been studying electrification since 2010. In 2014, former premier Kathleen Wynne promised the region’s trains would be fully electrified by 2024. But it’s very likely most, if not all, GO Transit trains will still be running on diesel engines by then.
As the rest of the world has embraced electrifying rail, bureaucratic delays and political jostling has pushed greener and faster travel further into Ontario’s future.
In many European countries, a majority of rail is already electrified, or well on the way to it. Nations whose GDPs are far below Canada’s, including Greece, North Macedonia, Romania and Spain, have all electrified over 30 per cent of their rail lines. Meanwhile, in Canada, less than one per cent of all tracks are electric, mostly urban rail networks like Toronto Transit Commission, for example.
“The fact is that we have watched Europe electrify its rail since the 1800s,” says Deborah de Lange, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) who researches sustainable development.
De Lange says the common excuse that Canada’s low population doesn’t justify expanding or electrifying rail does not bear out when you home in on the country’s most populated regions. She points to the Windsor-Quebec City rail corridor as a region that has equal or greater density to many European countries, but has much less electrified rail.
Canadian transit advocates have been pushing to electrify rail for years. In 2010, when Metrolinx was planning the UP Express rail link between Toronto’s Union Station and Pearson Airport, an advocacy group called the Clean Train Coalition pushed back against plans to purchase diesel-fueled engines. Now, with GO expansion plans, even more trains will be running on the same tracks.
“The concern for folks in my community is the air quality is going to be deeply impacted as more of these trains come through,” says Marit Stiles, MPP for the Toronto riding of Davenport. A number of Metrolinx trains pass through the Junction Triangle neighbourhood in her riding, including the Kitchener and Barrie corridor and the UP Express.
A 2017 study of GO Transit diesel exhaust emissions within train cars found that in some cases cars had over nine times the amount of black carbon and ultra-fine carbon as an average city street. Black carbon and ultra- fine carbon also affect nearby communities, though not in as high volumes. Metrolinx’s own studies found that switching to electric would save about $17.9 million in health care costs.
Metrolinx’s first publicly released study of electrifying rail came out in 2010. The report found there were many upsides to fully electrifying the system. Future greenhouse gas emissions produced by GO trains would be reduced by 94 per cent. While that reduction alone would be a very small dent in Ontario’s overall carbon goals, the agency also estimated that, were electrification completed by 2031, ridership would go up by 10,000 a day, removing 1.6 million car trips from the roads, per year.
Electric locomotives can accelerate and decelerate faster than diesel trains, saving commuters time. They would also save Metrolinx money — the agency pinned overall savings for operation at $79 million per year in 2010 dollars, assuming the price of diesel continued to rise at twice the price of electricity.
It would also mean savings for customers — a point that’s even more relevant now, as fuel and other costs spike. “From an economic standpoint on an individual level, the cost of a car, the gas and the insurance are huge costs that a lot of people don’t recognize because they see it as a necessity,” de Lange says. “But if you had real choices, viable choices, you would choose the more economic option when it’s possible to choose it. And it’s only made possible when the service is there.”
In 2014, then-premier Wynne and her transportation minister at the time, Glen Murray, committed to electrify GO Transit by 2024, also promising trains every 15 minutes. “When I think about the convenience we are aspiring to, it’s the notion that you could show up at a station knowing that within the next 10 to 15 minutes there is going to be a train,” Wynne told reporters at the time.
By 2017, Metrolinx had completed its pre-construction assessments and environmental reports. A timeline in the 2017 environmental assessment called for tenders to start in 2017-2019, for construction to begin by 2020 and for all work to be completed by 2025. On Dec. 11, 2017, then-minister of the environment Chris Ballard signed a notice to proceed with the transit project, which permitted Metrolinx to complete the final phase of its assessments and start construction. But it didn’t.
It’s difficult to get clear answers as to why the project stalled after this go-ahead. When asked about the cause of the delays, Metrolinx spokesperson Fannie Sunshine says the procurement process started in 2019 and ended in 2022 — a typical timeline for a large project.
Steven Del Duca, another former Wynne transportation minister who is now Liberal party leader, laid the blame mostly at the feet of the Progressive Conservatives, who have been in power since 2018. Del Duca said in an emailed statement to The Narwhal that “Ontario went backwards.” He also noted that electrification work is “inherently arduous, requiring environmental assessments, in-depth community consultations and complicated planning work.”
The current minister of transportation, Caroline Mulroney, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
But there are a couple of things we do know for certain. First, in 2017, Del Duca initiated a Metrolinx study on the feasibility of using engines powered by hydrogen fuel cells, as opposed to the overhead contact system that is used in many countries and was the assumed technology for GO train electrification in both the 2010 report and the 2017 assessments. While hydrogen has been floated as a green solution to powering large vehicles like locomotives, producing it and the lithium batteries it uses still takes a heavy toll on the environment.
“Our suspicion and concern back then was that electrification would get further derailed,” says Stiles, who was a school board trustee at the time. “And we could all see the writing was on the wall that this government was on its way out.” (Del Duca did not respond to questions about whether the hydrogen study delayed electrification of the GO Transit network.)
As well, Infrastructure Ontario, the agency that leads Ontario’s infrastructure planning, issued the request for qualified bidders to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the expansion project in April 2018. Two months later, the Liberals lost to the Progressive Conservatives, who very quickly after taking power cancelled green energy projects and committed to investing more in highways.
While electrification plans lingered, work moved forward on two other transit projects.
Later in 2018, after Doug Ford’s government was elected, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks approved environmental assessments on six new SmartTrack stations, running on existing GO Transit corridors. (Sunshine told The Narwhal that SmartTrack does not impact Metrolinx’s electrification project.) Metrolinx also released its business case for expansion, which includes 205 kilometres of new track, six new maintenance and storage facilities and electrification of a majority of its rail.
The short list of bidders and call for proposals on electrification wasn’t issued until a year later, in 2019, just a month after Ford announced his own $28.5 billion transit plan for Toronto, heavily focused on subways.
And then, in 2020: the pandemic spread across the world, generally disrupting work and construction on infrastructure projects.
All of which likely contributed to the winning bidder for the project not being selected until 2022 — well after the original timeline set out by the 2017 assessment.
Under Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act, any change to a project plan that makes it inconsistent with a previous environmental assessment triggers a new assessment. Which is why a fresh one was kicked off in 2021, after Metrolinx cited three major changes since the 2017 assessment was released: plans for new track and facilities required to complete its expansion plans, changes to infrastructure at the Union Station corridor and changes to anticipated GO Expansion service levels. Sunshine says the new assessment did not delay the electrification project as it was run concurrently with the procurement process.
Another ongoing issue is that Metrolinx does not own all the rail lines GO trains travel on. Some corridors are owned by Canadian Pacific Railway or Canadian National Railway, which operate diesel freight trains. While both organizations have plans to start operating electric locomotives, they will use different systems than GO Transit: GO routes that require using other services’ lines will have to continue running diesel trains.
Now that an election is underway, parties are jostling for positions on transit. While the Ford government budget didn’t mention electrification, it does commit to expanding GO Transit. Del Duca told the Narwhal in an emailed statement, “The Ontario Liberal Party is fully committed to GO expansion and electrification” and that he would accelerate work on the project. The NDP has also committed to expansion.
Last year, Stiles and fellow NDP MPPs Bhutila Karpoche, Faisal Hassan and Tom Rakocevic co-sponsored a bill asking the government to electrify and increase the service capacity of UP Express. UP vehicles were designed to be converted to electric propulsion and Metrolinx lists that as a priority. However, in 2019, it was announced that UP would undergo a large overhaul including buying new electric vehicles.
But had the focus been on electrifying the system with urgency from the start, Ontarians might be riding faster GO trains already. “I think that all of those technical issues, had they been paid attention to in a serious way and a more urgent way, all of it could have been worked out,” de Lange says.
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