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Markham councillor Jim Jones poses for a photograph at the Unionville GO Station in Markham (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Markham councillor Jim Jones poses for a photograph at the Unionville GO Station in Markham (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

transit

The downtown relief line already exists: Markham councillor Add to ...

Markham councillor Jim Jones thinks he’s found a magic-bullet solution for Scarborough’s rapid transit deficit, the rush-hour snarls at the Yonge/Bloor station, and even the diesel exhaust expected to waft over west-end neighbourhoods when Metrolinx launches its air-rail-link trains in 2015.

In recent weeks, the veteran politician, a former IBM network executive who spent six years as a Canadian Alliance MP, has been energetically shopping around his “I-METRO-E” scheme that proposes using GO’s Stouffville rail corridor – which snakes through Markham and runs parallel to Kennedy Road before angling towards Union Station – to deliver local service to the GTA’s eastern flank.

He’s already had an audience with the Board of Trade and has won over several Toronto councillors representing wards in both downtown and Scarborough. Mr. Jones’s idea goes to Markham council on Tuesday.

How would his scheme work? Mr. Jones wants Metrolinx to twin the tracks, triple the number of stations, knit the line into east-west transit routes, and, finally, run electric trains that can stop and start much more quickly than GO’s diesel fleet. There are similar opportunities to localize service along the Georgetown South corridor, in the west end, and Mr. Jones figures the line could even include stops serving the Portlands/Distillery District area as a bonus.

“I’m saying, this is the downtown relief line,” he grins, sipping black coffee at a Unionville diner not far from the proposed Markham arena. He estimates the I-METRO-E could carry 168,000 riders a day.

How’s that for a show-stopper?

Armed with a 79-page prospectus with a DIY vibe, Mr. Jones is pushing to have his idea included as an option when Metrolinx embarks on an environmental assessment on a proposal to twin a portion of the Stouffville corridor. (While the assessment will begin soon, Metrolinx hasn’t yet established a firm start date.) To do the work-up, he’s received help from all sorts of places – a Waterloo planning student, retired transportation officials, some transit industry types and even Julian Liu, a civil engineer who happens to works for the city and wrote, in his spare time, a 106-page treatise outlining the case for an “GTA Urban Express Rail Grid” that proposes using all the rail corridors running through the region.

Mr. Jones is also drawing on his experience building computer networks. “You always have to focus on integration and that’s kind of what I’m doing here. If you’re looking at every little piece, you’re not solving the problem.”

The I-METRO-E plan (the awkward acronym stands for Markham East Toronto Rapid Ontario Electric) has whet the appetites of a handful of Toronto politicians, including Chin Lee and Paula Fletcher, who jointly moved a motion at council last month recommending more intensive analysis. Says Mr. Jones, “Every place I’ve talked to have encouraged me [and]said, ‘Jim, keep going.’”

Indeed, since council’s epic transit showdown in March, public interest in the so-called DRL seems to have spiked. But the proposed solutions focus on the construction of a U-shaped subway from Donlands or Pape station to Queen Street – a scheme that will cost billions and take years, perhaps even decades, to complete.

A growing number of transit experts, such as University of Toronto urban geographer André Sorensen, have come around to the view that the city and Metrolinx must take a harder look at potential uses of the GO rail corridors running northeast and northwest from Union Station. Local service “would be very fast and you’d eliminate the crowding at Yonge and Bloor,” says Sorensen.

Metrolinx officials, however, remain skeptical. The provincial agency has a long-range plan, as yet unfunded, to introduce all-day two-way service on its seven rail lines, transforming GO from a peak-period commuter service geared at bringing 905ers downtown in the morning and taking them home at night. “All-day is the future of GO,” says chair Rob Prichard.

Metrolinx has not said how much it will cost to complete the transformation. But the agency’s planners don’t think GO’s track network – which extends 425 km, of which GO owns about two-thirds – should be used to offer local service. “We want to make sure our vision of the GO system doesn’t get conflated with the local system,” says Metrolinx’s vice-president of policy, planning and innovation, Leslie Woo, adding that the networks should be “complementary.”

Ms. Woo notes that, in the 905, GO works with local transit agencies to co-ordinate schedules and integrate fares. On the Lakeshore corridor and the Georgetown South line, Metrolinx has spent hundreds of millions twinning the tracks so its trains aren’t subject to delays due to freight movement.

But Mr. Jones says Ms. Woo told him Metrolinx intends to stick with its so-called “Big Move” plan, a 25-year, $50-billion strategy that envisions incremental changes to the GO rail network, as well as intensification around existing stations rather than the addition of new ones. (Metrolinx is currently updating the strategy.) Mr. Lee, however, says the region desperately needs another north-south transit corridor to relieve pressure on the increasingly crowded Yonge-University-Spadina line, which will see mounting ridership due to the new LRT lines and the Spadina extension to Vaughan. “That would give capacity back to the riders on the Yonge subway and improve transit times for people going south from north Scarborough.”

Ms. Fletcher agrees. “There’s a lot of interest to see what options there might be,” she says. “Let’s look at it and see if it goes in the mix before all the doors get shut.”

Mr. Jones admits his I-METRO-E scheme needs more professional scrutiny – for example, the $1.4-billion projected cost (including grade separations, stations and electrification) turns on development charges, tax increment financing and an HST rebate from the federal government. And he’s still refining the tables in the report showing the projected travel times for commuters coming south from Markham.

Still, as he flips through his report, Mr. Jones stops at a page showing the TTC’s familiar subway map next to a stylized GO Transit map depicting its rail network.

“These guys don’t talk to each other,” he stays, stabbing at the two diagrams with his index finger. “I’m saying, you put those together and you deepen your network. It’s the power of the network that’s going to make this competitive.”

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