Metrolinx's main priority should be upgrading the GO Rail system into a "regional metro," with frequent and fast all-day services that would attract suburb-to-suburb, contra-peak and off-peak trips, and support the development of higher-density development nodes throughout the region. This is to be the "backbone" of the regional transit system. It is the only scheme that can make a major impact on inter-regional traffic. Without it, the effectiveness of all other investments will be greatly reduced.
The Big Move in its original evaluation endorsed this vision, but Metrolinx has since failed to follow up, after a lukewarm evaluation by GO in the 2010 electrification study. GO's lack of enthusiasm seems due to a flawed study methodology and a misunderstanding of the financial implications of electrification. GO does not seem to understand how efficient electrified commuter rail services are operated, and how much revenue they can generate. Essentially, GO looked at operating the system much as it does today, but with electric locomotives replacing diesels. GO did not consider how to optimize its operations around the technology. Lacking an enthusiastic sponsor, this vital scheme was pushed aside for LRT schemes with much weaker business cases and which, without the GO Rail "backbone," will do little to transform travel in the GTHA.
Our analysis indicates that, using electric locomotives in the peaks, and smaller, self-propelled Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) to offer a frequent all-day service, the incremental investment of about $1 billion to electrify the Lakeshore line could be offset entirely with additional fare revenues and operational cost savings, in effect paying a commercial return as well as alleviating road congestion. This sort of "hybrid" operating strategy, with two different types of train operating on the same network, is common in Europe. Indeed, Metrolinx is already purchasing Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) to operate the Union Pearson Express, interworking with push-pull GO trains. While a mixed fleet is more challenging for GO management to operate, the financial benefits will make it worthwhile. Electrification of the rest of the network will cost more, but promises similar benefits.
The Union Pearson Express scheme offers reasonable value for money and will help to deliver the Metrolinx objectives. Indeed, UP Express will use the smaller "Multiple Unit" trains that GO did not consider for the rest of the network, and should recover most or all costs (including capital costs) from revenues. Although the financial return was not, apparently, strong enough to attract risk-averse private capital, it should be a good investment for Metrolinx.
Development of additional peak-hour GO services from Danforth/Main, Dundas West/Bloor, Kipling and Kennedy could relieve the subway quickly and effectively, and at a small fraction of the cost of the proposed Downtown Relief Line. Services from Danforth/Main seem especially promising, and could be started even in advance of full GO electrification. The Downtown Relief Line should be deferred, and may prove not to be needed at all.