The improved GO connections that Mayor Bratina is pushing are far more likely to transpire in the near term than a downtown tramway and have the potential to provide some major benefits.
By Ray Lawlor
Published August 01, 2011
Around this time last year, I submitted a piece to RTH suggesting that Hamilton might do well to consider alternative ways to invest in its future besides the B-line LRT. One of things I suggested at that time was to focus on improving GO connections in Hamilton instead.
Given that the mayor's office just brought the B-line LRT project to a screeching (if nominally temporary) halt and shifted the focus to all-day GO service expansion, it seemed an appropriate time to follow up.
For the past couple of weeks, Mayor Bob has gotten a lot of flak online and in the Spectator about his change of tack. True, his priority shift could probably have been done with greater tact, and his explanations of his reasoning have left something to be desired. Certain maladroit political moves notwithstanding, the mayor deserves more credit than he's getting right now.
The improved GO connections that Mr. Bratina is pushing are far more likely to transpire in the near term than a downtown tramway and have the potential to provide some major benefits to the City of Hamilton.
Improved GO service is also a very good fit with Metrolinx's and the Province's plans for the GTHA, and offers considerable improvement in operational efficiencies for regional transit services. Bear in mind that the mayor formerly served on GO Transit's board of directors and is surely aware of the issues outlined below.
The expansion of all-day service Mr. Bratina is gunning for must be seen in the context of The Big Move, Metrolinx' 2008 regional transportation plan. The Big Move includes a major change for the three busiest GO lines - Lakeshore East, Lakeshore West and Georgetown - with a shift from a "commuter" to a "regional" service model.
Basically, Metrolinx wants to start running these services more like the Paris RER than Chicago's Metra, with trains in both directions every 15-20 minutes instead of every hour (and even more often at peak times). Unfortunately the Hunter St station in Hamilton cannot accommodate any more trains per day, so additional GO service would be added by routing trains to a new railway station at James St N.
Since this plan was released three years ago, two very important shifts have occurred in the regional landscape: Metrolinx has adopted a plan to electrify part of the GO network in stages (including the Lakeshore West line to Hamilton), and plans have emerged for Lakeshore West service to continue to St. Catherine's.
These two priorities will guide any future investments in GO connections to Hamilton. There is also growing recognition of the increasing number of "reverse commuters" in the GTHA - people living in urban areas but commuting to jobs outside of traditional dense employment regions like downtown Toronto. These transit users are driving a shift to better two-way regional service.
All of this means that Metrolinx is under pressure to have GO move more people more efficiently in more directions.
In addition, there is a more practical reason why a Hamilton service expansion has been on Metrolinx' radar for some time: operations costs.
From an individual traveller's perspective, the current QEW express bus from downtown Hamilton to Toronto Union is great. You get on at Hunter St, pick up a few more people on the way to the 403 along King and then are whisked along the QEW for the next hour without having to make any stops along the way. In off peak hours this is often faster than the express GO trains that leave Hunter St every morning. With this bus in place, who needs a train most of the time?
From Metrolinx' perspective, however, it would be much better to have Hamilton GO patrons take the train. The QEW express bus is a very expensive and inefficient service to have to run. There is no passenger turnover on the QEW express other than those who get on at one end and off at the other, so the passengers per kilometre travelled are very low.
Lakeshore West trains run all day from Burlington/Aldershot whether the QEW express bus exists or not, meaning a large portion of existing train service is duplicated with these buses. By extending Lakeshore West train service and eliminating the express bus, GO saves the expense of running around forty bus trips a day with only incremental increases in operating costs for the Lakeshore West line.
Strangely, there have been a number of Spec letters to the editor and other public statements of late that somehow view this improved service as a threat. The line of reasoning seems to be that Hamilton will be transformed into a "bedroom community."
I am not sure how exactly this is supposed to transpire, and I do not think it will. If GO train service is extended, some commuters wanting to avoid Toronto/Mississauga/Oakville real estate prices may move to the north end of Hamilton to take advantage of the lower cost of living, but more residents and higher property values mean more tax money to fill depleted city coffers.
Increased real estate demand has the potential to turn some of those downtown "greyfield" parking lots into condo in-fill. I cannot understand why for years the exodus of downtown residents to the suburbs has been bemoaned as a cause of urban decay, but when there is a relatively straightforward opportunity to do something to reverse that trend we are suddenly very picky about where the new residents will work.
From where I stand, Hamilton cannot afford to be that choosy. Maybe some newcomers will take the GO train to Toronto, but maybe some will also have partners who are artists wanting to work on James St N. Maybe some will have children who will fill schools.
Maybe they'll buy groceries from our renovated Farmer's Market or take books out of the renovated library while they're at it. I would much rather see residents flocking to downtown than the "Elfrida Growth Area," even if some of them do not spend their 9-to-5 in Hamilton's borders.
Perhaps most importantly, the improved GO service has the ability to make Hamilton much more attractive to businesses.
Downtown Hamilton has plenty of office vacancy, and there is an opportunity to leverage the improved access offered by regular GO service to sell Hamilton as a cheaper place to set up shop than Bay Street.
A strong selling point would be that with all-day frequent service it would be just as easy for a worker living in Oakville to get to Hamilton as it would be to get to Toronto.
All of the above being said, there are definitely a number of hurdles to overcome in this process, of which I will address some below and some in a future article to follow.
The first problem is the current Hunter St station. The former TH&B line that runs through the station is used by CP for freight movement and does not have the capacity to handle more commuter trains without substantial upgrades.
For the type of service GO envisions in the next decade, the Hunter St tunnel and TH&B spur would need to be expanded and eventually electrified. Although this is technically feasible, it would be much cheaper to do along the CN Grimsby sub through the north end.
The second problem is that the TH&B line is a poor choice for future regional rail service. After passing through downtown, it splits into two low speed freight lines around Gage Park, eliminating the possibility of service to Niagara region without a new rail heavy rail corridor and connection to the CN main line being somehow built through an urban area.
Any all-day GO extension to Hamilton (and eventually toward Niagara) would therefore have to go through the north end to avoid political wrangling and high costs.
Of course, moving the central GO station away from the core creates a "last-mile" problem. Aside from walking or local HSR buses, how will people traveling to Hamilton on these frequent GO trains reach McMaster University, the city centre or Ivor Wynne stadium?
I'm going to leave my full answer to this question for a future submission, but in a nutshell this will require a three-pronged solution.
In the near term the best options are improved HSR bus service and adoption of alternative modes like a BIXI-style bike share.
In the long run I believe that a light-rail based solution in a segregated right of way rather than following converted traffic lanes is the best answer.
This could be done by replacing underused freight lines, abandoned former railway corridors and the medians of certain grade-separated roads with light rail (as was done with Ottawa's O-train, the Charlotte Lynx and parts of the Portland MAX).
If GO train service is shifted completely to James N, parts of the TH&B line would serve perfectly for this purpose.
There are a number of reasons why focusing on expanded GO services will be a boon for Hamilton and offer an important opportunity to redevelop the lower city.
Expanded GO service to James St N will allow Hamilton to reap the benefits of coming upgrades to regional GO service on the Lakeshore West line such as increased service frequency and speed with line electrification.
Reliable all-day railway service will make Hamilton significantly more attractive to regional commuters and will allow us to cash in on the benefits to the local economy they will bring. If accompanied by local transit improvements, this service expansion has the potential to make the city far more attractive to businesses as well.
Since there are very good operational reasons for implementing all-day service and relatively modest costs (less than $100 million of mostly provincial money), Metrolinx is already on board.
The decision to shift city resources to preparing for imminent all-day GO service expansion will do Hamilton a world of good, and I plan to be on the first train the rolls into James N.
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