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Afternoon rush hour commuters jam aboard a GO train at Toronto's Union Station. (Randall Moore/Randall Moore / The Globe and Mail)
Afternoon rush hour commuters jam aboard a GO train at Toronto's Union Station. (Randall Moore/Randall Moore / The Globe and Mail)

Rail link to Pearson gets green light, with strict conditions Add to ...

Ontario's Environment Minister has okayed a major expansion of train traffic through the city's west end - including the long-awaited rail link between Toronto and Pearson airport - on condition the engines use a clean diesel technology that doesn't yet exist.

John Gerretsen signed off late Monday on an environmental project report by the province's Toronto-region transportation agency, Metrolinx, for the Georgetown South GO service expansion and the Union-Pearson rail link.

The contentious project is opposed by local residents, the public school board and the city's medical officer of health, who wanted the train service made electric to eliminate diesel pollution.

Mr. Gerretsen said he's addressed those concerns by attaching 18 strict conditions to the approval, chief among them a requirement that any trains on the new rail line meet Tier 4 emissions standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The standards will be required for all locomotives in the U.S. by 2015.

The technology, which is still in development and not yet commercially available for locomotives, is expected to reduce particulate by 90 per cent and nitrogen oxides by 80 per cent, when used in combination with low-sulphur fuels.

The approval says all Georgetown trains must be Tier 4 compliant when the service begins or when the "technology becomes commercially available."

Mr. Gerretsen said he's confident manufacturers can meet the standard by 2015.

"I think that we've put in the toughest possible conditions that we could," he told The Globe and Mail. "It's my understanding that electrification would be an extremely expensive proposition at this point in time, and our goal has always been to put as much transit on the ground as possible so we can get as many cars off the ground as possible."

Metrolinx issued a statement last night saying it was pleased with the decision and will accept the conditions.

But Mike Sullivan, head of the Weston Community Coalition that has fought the Pearson rail link, said the conditions are all but impossible to meet. He wondered how Metrolinx will be able to find, tender and order trains in time for a 2015 delivery when none currently exist. Unless timelines are changed, Metrolinx would be forced to buy trains with lower emissions standards and then replace them when Tier 4 trains become available, which wouldn't make financial sense, he said.

As for Mr. Gerretsen's belief that electrification will cost too much, Mr. Sullivan said "somebody has pulled the wool over his eyes." He pegs the cost at $200- to $300-million based on what transit systems have done in Britain and elsewhere.

The $875-million Metrolinx plan is meant to ease congestion, boost GO Transit service on the Milton and Barrie lines, and provide an alternative for the five million people who travel annually between Pearson International Airport and downtown Toronto.

The Union-Pearson rail link, once called Blue 22 for what was then envisioned as a 22-minute direct trip, would now stop at GO Transit's Bloor Street station and an upgraded GO station in Weston. The plan includes a possible future stop at Woodbine racetrack. The service will be privately run by SNC-Lavalin.

The plan calls for 323 trains per day to run through the lower half of the corridor to and from Union Station upon launch in 2015 - up from the current 49 trains. At full service in 2031, there will be 464 trains per day running the same stretch, reduced to 268 northwest of the junction.

Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown, had warned that Metrolinx' own health-impact assessment predicts acute health effects such as respiratory irritation along the entire corridor. The agency committed to studying electrification of its entire train system, but the conversion of the Georgetown line isn't expected for at least 15 years. Metrolinx expects the Union-Pearson service to take 1.2-million car trips a year off the road, with another 200,000 trips displaced by GO.

Rick Ciccarelli of the Clean Train Coalition said it makes no sense for Metrolinx to spend $875-million on a diesel plan only to electrify the route at a later date at added cost.

Transit planners have been musing about a rail link between Union Station and Pearson since the late 1980s. SNC-Lavalin won the right to operate the rail line in 2003.

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