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Where Should We Put the “Downtown Relief” Line?

April 30, 2012

The Downtown Relief Line has been in the news a lot lately, what with dreams of vast new revenues to pay for transit expansion and, at long last, a recognition that more people want to travel downtown than we have transit capacity to handle.

Back in the 1980s, the Network 2011 plan included a line from Union Station to Don Mills and Eglinton by way of the rail corridor, Eastern Avenue, Pape, a bridge across the Don Valley, and Don Mills Road. This scheme was turned down in favour of the Sheppard Subway as part of a misguided idea that if we simply stopped building new lines into downtown, growth would stop. In fact, GO Transit did a fine job of providing extra capacity, and more recently the new downtown condos have raised short commutes by streetcar, cycling and foot to levels nobody expected thirty years ago.

The Yonge subway filled up, for a time,but the pressure fell off thanks to the 1990s recession and the general drop in transit use. That’s no longer the case, and suddenly everyone wants to “do something” about transit capacity downtown. The TTC, shamefully, downplayed anything beyond its own mad scheme to stuff thousands more riders onto the Yonge line, a project requiring major changes in signalling, reconstruction of Bloor-Yonge station (and possibly others) for extra capacity, a much larger subway fleet (and yards to hold it) and possibly even the addition of platform doors at all stations.

Council asked the TTC to look at a DRL, and there is even supposed to be a study. However, its web page is the only sign that anything is going on.

Meanwhile, every would-be transit planner in town is busy drawing maps, to the point where a credible plan can be found simply by dropping a piece of spaghetti on a map of the city and declaring this a route. (Post-graduate degrees are available to those who can determine the ideal height from which to drop the pasta and cooking time needed to produce the best results.) What’s missing in a lot of this discussion is a view of how a DRL might fit into a wider network, not to mention a few basics about how a new rapid transit line will, or will not, fit in some of the proposed alignments.

One of the better proposals is on Phil Orr’s DRL Now site. It’s not perfect (no proposal is, including those I have floated from time to time), but at least this is a place to start with sufficient detail to understand what is going on. Drawing a swoosh across a map is easy (politicians do it all the time), but designing something that might actually work is a lot harder.

A major challenge with some versions of this line is that proponents try to do too much. Playing “connect the dots” with a transit route has its limitations, and trying to hit too many of them causes the line to wander out of its way. This ties back to a fundamental question: what is a DRL supposed to do?

If we believe some of the simpler plans (notably one in last week’s Star proposed by Councillor Pasternak), the DRL’s sole function is to get people from the Danforth subway to Union Station. This is far too simplistic and guarantees the line will not be well used except as a peak period relief valve.

Other schemes take the route south of the rail corridor to serve the Port Lands and eastern waterfront. Aside from the problems of building such a line in landfill beside Lake Ontario, the route would not provide the fine-grained transit access possible with a surface LRT, and would vastly overservice an area whose expected demand is lower than the existing Sheppard subway. Connection to Union Station from the south would also be a big challenge.

From time to time, I am asked “what would you do”, but to start that discussion, a few first principles:

  • A”DRL” should not exist solely to relieve the Yonge line’s peak traffic problem, but should provide new links within the transit network giving rapid transit to areas of the city that do not have it today. Indeed, the regional function within the network may well be as important as the “relief” function at Bloor-Yonge.
  • Any proposed route through downtown must respect the actual built form of the streets and buildings. Diagonal routes through built-up areas should be avoided as they are difficult if not impossible to build.
  • Stations must be located where it is physically possible to build them. Some routes use rail corridors without considering how either a surface or underground station might fit or be built.
  • A “DRL” is not the complete solution to capacity problems on the subway. These problems originate north of Steeles Avenue, and a major role in trimming peak demand falls to GO Transit which has several north-south routes that could drain traffic otherwise headed for the Yonge line.

The proposed route on DRL Now (click on “Interactive Map” under the “Station Information” pulldown) includes four phases:

  • Don Mills and Eglinton to City Place
  • City Place to Dundas West
  • Don Mills from Eglinton to Sheppard
  • Dundas West to Pearson Airport

I have concerns with a few details of this plan, but the basics are good. Another view of the route is available via Google Maps. This has the advantage of showing the detailed alignment rather than a “route map” graphic.

Eglinton to Railway Lands West

A route from Eglinton and Don Mills to downtown will intercept traffic that now flows via three separate bus routes (Don Mills, Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park) to the Danforth subway, not to mention future traffic from the Eglinton LRT (which will have an underground station connection at Don Mills). Because the subway will not terminate at the Danforth, the volume of transfer traffic (as opposed to through rides on the new line) should be lower and the station less congested.

Some plans have aimed for different connection points on the Danforth line, although they have not necessarily considered the problems of continuing north from the connection point. These options are best viewed by zooming in on the Google Maps representation of the line.

  • Donlands Station: Donlands is an alternative north-south route except for the fact that the street ends at Danforth and some neighbourhood upheaval will be required to reach the rail corridor. However, this route is closer to Greenwood Yard, and there is the general question of how a DRL might be connected into the existing subway system for maintenance purposes.
  • Greenwood Station: Like Donlands, Greenwood is another alternative route, although it goes through a completely residential neighbourhood. A connection to Greenwood Yard should be possible on the east side.
  • Coxwell Station: Coxwell is directly south of the line of Don Mills Road and is the easternmost point where a connection is even vaguely reasonable.
  • Woodbine Station: Woodbine is well east of Don Mills Road, and a connection there more or less rules out extending the line north to Eglinton.

A related question for those who propose easterly locations for a connection is the function of a “DRL” in the Beach and whether its purpose is to somehow serve traffic from that region (which is not exactly overrun with high density development) to downtown. A westerly connection point like Pape has the advantage that the route cuts diagonally through Thorncliffe Park and across the valley and gets to downtown faster than a route further east. The Thorncliffe Park stop would not be included in any route crossing Danforth east of Greenwood because it would be out of the way for a Coxwell or Woodbine alignment.

South of Danforth, the next major segment takes the line to the Don River. Regardless of which crossing is chosen, the two options are either to go straight south to Eastern (or possibly Queen), then west into downtown, or to follow the rail corridor from (say) Pape southwest. Going under the rail corridor has its challenges, although from a jurisdictional viewpoint, the fact that Metrolinx now owns this line eliminates one possible source of opposition.

The challenge will be to tunnel under a busy rail corridor and to include stations at a few intermediate points. A surface alignment is not practical given the constraints of what is there today and planned for GO’s future expansion. Stations will be tricky unless the tunnel veers away from the rail corridor to adjacent lands. Orr’s proposal sites both the Gerrard and Queen Stations on the south-east side of the corridor where land is available.

Orr’s proposed path through the core is, for me, unattractive because it wanders in attempting to pick up many sites and ignores potential problems with building foundations.

A simpler route into downtown would be to follow Front and Wellington Streets to Peter where (at least today) there is vacant land for a diagonal crossing to Spadina and Front, the site of the proposed Metrolinx “Union Station West” for services in the Weston corridor. Connections at Yonge (to King Station) and University (to St. Andrew Station) would be fairly easy to build given the physical locations of existing stations. This route will not be a simple project, but at least it stays under one street for the distance across downtown.

Any route west of the Don River will have to deal with the built form of the West Don Lands project now under construction.

Eglinton to Sheppard

A few schemes have been proposed for a “Don Mills” line north of Eglinton including:

  • The Don Mills LRT to Steeles (Transit City)
  • A line running north to the CPR rail corridor just north of Eglinton and thence northeast through Agincourt
  • Continuation of the “DRL” north to Sheppard (Orr’s Plan)

I have never been happy with the TTC’s proposals for a Don Mills LRT running on the surface through East York. This always had the feel of a project jammed into the available space with no regard for the effect on the community, and this approach was one of many ways the Transit City team alienated people from their plan. It was always clear that the line would require a lot of infrastructure (bridge, tunnel) south of Flemingdon/Thorncliffe and given the projected demand for a DRL, putting a subway in such infrastructure makes a lot more sense than an LRT line.

The problem arises of where the subway should end and something else should take over. Should this be at Eglinton or at Sheppard? I’m not convinced either way, and would like to see better info on travel patterns and population in the Don Mills corridor. Orr proposes stations only at the concession roads: Lawrence, York Mills and Sheppard. Like other “express” subway lines, this leaves many sites and potential riders at the mercy of local bus service, should the TTC deign to operate it. Is this the appropriate way to serve Don Mills Road, or would a surface route with more stops be better?

The Weston Rail Corridor

This corridor is a monument to the blinkered view Metrolinx has of planning for transportation within the City of Toronto. Although massive capacity expansion is underway, it is intended almost exclusively to provide room for many more trains on the Brampton/Kitchener, Milton and Airport lines.

The “Air Rail Link”, a doomed project inherited from the Federal Government and SNC Lavalin, sits in Metrolinx’ lap as a business-class express service from Pearson Airport to Union. One or two stops enroute will connect to the Bloor and (future) Eglinton rapid transit lines. The real need in this corridor is for local service — “local” not in the sense of stopping at every lamp post, but of service that addresses day-to-day demand between many points on the route as part of the regular transit system.

The rail corridor has been proposed as a “DRL West” and appears as such in Orr’s proposal. The real problem here is how we would build it given that the corridor has already been (or soon will be) reconfigured for expanded GO services.

A vital question for any proposal is “what is it supposed to do”. This will affect many aspects of route design including station location and size, fleet requirements, interoperation with other rail services, and the capacity of interchange points such as Dundas West Station on the Bloor Subway.

If we were starting from a blank slate about 30 years ago, the situation could have been very different, and the Weston corridor might have been configured with a rapid transit line on or under it. Doing this today is not as simple.

At this point, I have to declare my preference that a northwest line not automatically be an extension of the DRL subway. We have yet to see that there would actually be sufficient demand for full subway trains (there is no question of this on the eastern leg), and the use of subway technology imposes constraints on right-of-way and stations. At the very least, we should know what the alternative — an electrified frequent service on GO’s ARL trackage — would require and what it could do.

The Downtown Streetcar Lines

The DRL is cited by some as a way of solving the problem with the Queen and King streetcars. I do not agree. This is an unfortunate example of trying to make the DRL do more than it reasonably can.

Condo developments are thick on King Street, and the new buildings are moving north to Queen both west and east of downtown. These cannot be served by a single route, especially one with the wider station spacing typical of subway lines.

These are two separate networks — a rapid transit line coming into downtown, and a streetcar network serving not just Queen or King, but Dundas and College as well. The problem we have with the streetcars is that there is not enough service, and what we do have is not well-managed. Some of this is traffic congestion which, in turn, begs questions of enforcement. Spend billions on a subway, or much much less on better service and a fleet of tow trucks? That’s an oversimplification, but it’s a debate we avoid.

GO North

In every discussion of Yonge subway capacity, the potential for additional service on GO tends to be ignored even though it is part of the Metrolinx “Big Move”. GO management seems content to run a few new trains here and there, but their comments about major service increases and electrification are tempered by years of underfunding. The word “if” is more common than “when” in remarks about GO expansion.

There are big challenges, not the least of which are track and station capacities downtown. Electrification is essential for frequent service, but funding is a mystery and has not been integrated in the Metrolinx long-term plans.

GO could be handling more riders into downtown Toronto and, thereby, shaving the peak off of demand on the subway system on several existing and future routes. What is needed is the will to fund and operate these services.

Fares and subsidies will be a big issue as GO grows. More service, especially in the counterpeak and offpeak, will drag down the farebox recovery for GO.

Similarly, the fare structure’s penalties against short-haul riding discourage travellers who should be on GO but chooses instead to put up with the TTC (or drive).

What do we want? A profitable system, or one that provides service? Discussions of new funding schemes must address fare levels, not just the cost of building new infrastructure.


Expansion of Toronto’s rapid transit system involves more than “just one more” subway line and must be done with a view to how the network will carry riders, not just that one line.

Toronto and the regions beyond need to understand how that network might work, how the contribution of many routes will make something valuable for everyone even though they will not ride every route or visit every station.

Metrolinx and the TTC owe us a much more public, informed debate about the options and how we might spend the billions new taxes or tolls will bring.

The “Downtown Relief Line” is important, but it is only part of a much larger regional plan, and we must not try to make it solve every problem of our overburdened transit system.


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