Railroaded by Metrolinx: Get Smart and Go Electric

“We’re all in favour of a better public transit system. Everyone is on board. But no one should be asked to trade public health for public transit.” Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown
Electric vs Diesel Forum on March 22nd at City Hall
As I write this, I am sitting on a 4200-horsepower MP40 GO Train, and smelling the diesel emissions in my coach. My eyes are smarting. As a seasoned Lakeshore West commuter, I believe that people actually underestimate the future impact of the Georgetown South Service expansion, and Air Rail Link, will have on our west-end neighbourhoods. A GO engineer has admitted to me that GO ensures that there are buffer zones around train stations for a reason – the pollution and noise from diesel trains stopping and starting is too intense for nearby residential development.

Yet on the even more urban Georgetown Corridor, condos have been built within meters of the proposed expansion, their balconies overhanging the future seven, or eight, tracks. The number of tracks, or amount of exact train frequency, was not answered at the recent Electric vs Diesel Forum at City Hall, but was estimated to be around 200, with 140 of these trips by the Air Rail Link. I am still astounded by the informed standing room only audience, which asked pointed questions of VP Metrolinx, Gary McNeil which he could not answer, surrounded as he is by the Liberal Party ‘cone of silence’, an hysterically funny device perfected in ‘Get Smart’, a TV show which ran throughout the 1960s. NDP MP candidate, Andrew Cash, wrote so eloquently about the forum in NOW, that I can only link to his article. At the end of the forum, Councilor John Filion complimented those participating, and said it was a higher quality discussion than City Hall has seen in a long time. We all laughed.

The truth of this project is so simple- if the corridor is built with electric trains, it will add value to all the communities it runs through by transit-oriented development. If it is built with diesel trains, it will damage our communities, and reverse the current trend of investment and revitalization. A third rate transit system will mean a third rate Toronto.

Why are these basic urban planning principles so difficult for the provincial government, and Metrolinx/GO transit to see? And why is no one else in the world, and I mean no one else, expanding diesel rail corridors directly beside parks, schools and condominiums? And why, oh why, are we considered worthy of a third rate Air Rail Link which will last for generations to come as our tax legacy from the Pan Am Games? Vancouver parlayed their Olympic investment into the SkyTrain, which has added to the welfare of their city, and we will be running Olympic athletes through a rat’s maze of 5.5 concrete meter walls on their way to their Olympic Village, blocking west-end Toronto from their windows. What is there to hide? Bad transit policy and contempt for the rights of citizens?

To add insult to injury, although currently spending $4 million for yet another electrification study (is it twelve? or thirteen?), Metrolinx/GO is in the process of researching and developing platinum catalytic converters and Tier 4 ‘clean diesel’ for the MP40s, as well as custom built diesel multiple units for the Air Rail Link. They will test these new, specialized technologies on the Georgetown South corridor, shortly after the latest electrification study is filed. Does this mean that this electrification study is a sham, and its inevitable support of electrification is a moot point? Is it a ‘done diesel’? And why is Metrolinx/GO engaging community stakeholders, and their valuable time, to discuss the obvious through a highly publicized series of electrification workshops, yet in their independent, separate time line, viewing the choice of diesel locomotives as ‘fait accompli’? Is this operating in good faith to include the input of these participants? And why is this SNC-Lavalin contract protected by a Maxwell Smart cone of silence with the government agencies involved in an elaborate game of broken telephone with the community, and with each other? And why has Metrolinx recently purchased more MP40s, which have a life span of 40 years?

As Mike Sullivan, Clean Train Coalition head, has pointed out, they are building this massive track expansion to enable the privately owned Air Rail Link. We are fighting KAOS, a labyrinthine, unaccountable organization, which has refused to hear our unanimous message asking for electrification. Nothing was more evident at the forum, as there were no clear answers from the Metrolinx VP Gary McNeil about any aspect of this project- not the final number of the tracks, the inefficiency of the privatization of the Air Rail Link, or the rationale for diesel. When I told him that this corridor would reverse revitalization in my community, he said “I do not see it that way”. Well, he is the only transit manager in the world who could say those words with impunity, with the public relations machine of an arm’s length transit agency backing him.

The absurdity of this all never ceases to amaze me, but I have a personal, pressing concern. This fall, I had a viral respiratory disease which took my breath away. For six weeks, I had asthma. It felt as if liquid concrete had been poured into my lungs, and because of the asthma, my body could not use my lungs to fight the virus with oxygen, extending my illness. I know the impact of diesel rail emissions as a commuter firsthand, and that Toronto relies upon the health of its air, its citizens and their lungs. I write with all my remaining lung capacity to raise the cone of silence surrounding Metrolinx, and the provincial government, to unveil their secret contract with SNC-Lavalin so they can communicate with the community, and heed their unanimous, standing room only call for electrification of this west-end rail corridor. Get smart, Metrolinx, and go electric.

Get Smart – Cone of Silence (from episode 1)
Andrew Cash: ‘Dumb like Diesel: Residents’ eco concerns take a back seat to Pan Am Games in great train debate’
Metrolinx Electrification Study
‘Diesel rail a health hazard, forum told’

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