The province's regional transportation authority has decided to start formal talks with a Japanese company to buy diesel trains for the long-awaited express line from Union Station to Pearson airport.
The Metrolinx board voted during an in-camera meeting Tuesday to enter into negotiations with Sumitomo Corp. of America to purchase as many as 18 two-car diesel trains for the shuttle run slated to open in time for the Pan Am Games.
The decision to plow ahead with a diesel purchase is a blow to the local residents and business owners who've been demanding Metrolinx buy electric vehicles for the line.
A group of west-end activists calling itself the Clean Train Coalition had hoped an ongoing $4-million study of electrifying the GO train system would recommend the air-rail link be electrified before it opens in 2015 - despite Metrolinx never making such a commitment.
But the president of Metrolinx confirmed Tuesday that there's no way the $300-million project can be electrified in under five years. "The simple message [is]it can't be electrified in time for the Pan Am Games," Gary McNeil said.
Mr. McNeil said it would be impossible to complete an environmental assessment, obtain the approvals to build a hydro substation to power the line and build and test the new system before 2015.
The year 2018 is the soonest GO's Georgetown corridor - and the three-kilometre spur to the airport along which the 25-minute shuttle service will operate - could be electrified, he told the board. Metrolinx has promised to select cleaner Tier 4 diesel trains that can be converted to electric in future.
Toronto has been waiting years for train service that could whisk travellers from Pearson International Airport to downtown.
SNC-Lavalin, the engineering giant that was supposed to build and operate the line without public funds, bowed out last summer because it couldn't finance the project. Metrolinx took over, vowing to open the shuttle service by the spring of 2015.
The transportation authority is aiming to sign a contract for new trains by Feb. 6, a timeline Mr. McNeil said would be easier to meet if Metrolinx could seal a deal with Sumitomo.
Sumitomo, in partnership with its Japanese car-builder Nippon Sharyo Ltd., will be awarded a contract next month to build two-car diesel trains for the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit Agency in Northern California.
Metrolinx is looking to piggyback on that contract, saving it the trouble and time of seeking its own competitive tenders.
"When we looked at what their process was it was probably even more open and competitive than what our process would have been," Mr. McNeil said. "They actually received what I'd call five compliant submittals from the various manufacturing sectors and the Nippon Sharyo [bid]was actually the lowest price by 30 per cent."
The Sonoma-Marin trains would be built in Illinois and are expected to cost $3.1-million (U.S.) each - roughly in line with what Metrolinx would pay for the same trains modified for a colder climate and higher-end clientele. Metrolinx is eyeing an initial order of 12 trains, with a prototype delivered by late 2013, and the remainder by 2014. There are no Canadian content requirements for heavy locomotives.
The Clean Train Coalition is pushing Queen's Park to halt the diesel purchase.
"We should not be putting more bad stuff in the air and that's what this plan intends to do," coalition spokesman Mike Sullivan told a few dozen protesters outside the Metrolinx meeting. "This train will have so few passengers, as they're planning it, that it actually [will be]better for the environment to drive cars."
Metrolinx countered that would only be true if older diesel technology - not the cleaner Tier 4 standard - powered the trains that will run on the air-rail link.
Toronto's air-rail link, by the numbers
Spring 2015 - Projected opening date
$300-million - Budget
140 - Approximate number of trains daily
2 - Number of cars on air-rail link trains
64 - Number of seats per car
15 minutes - Frequency trains arrive and depart
25 minutes - Travel time between Union Station and Pearson airport
4 - Proposed stops (Pearson, Weston, Bloor, Union)
5,000 - Estimated number of passengers per day in first five years
?? - Fare. The cost per trip won't be finalized until 2014.