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New Line to Connect Toronto Rail to Airport

Rendering of new Air Rail Link Train
A controversy surrounding the new Air Rail Link between Toronto’s Union Station and the Pearson International Airport is arising not from the new line’s complex alignment from its plan to use diesel versus electrified cars. Courtesy of Metrolinx

The Air Rail Link will connect Toronto’s Union Station rail complex with Pearson International Airport. But controversy continues over what type of cars to use.

October 23, 2012—More than five million people a year travel the 17 mi between Union Station in downtown Toronto and Pearson International Airport. That number is expected to almost double to 9 million in 2020. To tackle the growing congestion, Metrolinx, the transportation authority for the Toronto metropolitan region, has started work on the construction of the $128.6-million Air Rail Link to establish a fixed-rail connection between two of Canada’s largest transit hubs.

For most of its length the airport-to-downtown line will operate on an existing commuter rail line; the Air Rail Link itself will extend approximately 1.86 mi to link the commuter line with Terminal 1 at Pearson. When completed, trains will depart every 15 minutes for the 25-minute journey between the airport and the train station. Transit officials predict the new line will take 1.2 million car trips off the road a year.

The rail link project is being overseen by the Canadian construction and infrastructure development firm Aecon and is expected to be completed in 2014. In written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online, Metrolinx media relations specialist Mark Ostler explained that the biggest challenge on the new spur line has to do with weaving it through some tight geometry. “We had a sharp 14-degree curve coming off our corridor; squeezed between the environmentally sensitive Mimico Creek, Highway 409, [and] adjacent buildings; [went] over five roadways, and [sinks] overtop the airport’s APM (automated people mover) in the Airport Terminal 1. Access and building in this tight space is a challenge.”

 Map indicating Air Rail Link, extending from Terminal 1 at Pearson International Airport to Union Station in Toronto

The Air Rail Link, in dark green, will extends from Terminal 1 at
Pearson International Airport to Union Station in Toronto, with
stops in Weston and Bloor to connect with exiting subway lines.
Courtesy of Metrolinx

Getting the alignment right was difficult, but the decision that has stirred the most controversy has been the move to utilize diesel locomotives rather than to proceed with an electric line. Rick Ciccarelli, chairman of the Clean Train Coalition, a Canadian nonprofit organization that promotes electrification, says that 300,000 people live within a third of a mile of the line, an area that also contains 79 schools. “This is a new diesel service with a train coming through every 7.5 minutes,” he says. “We think it will affect the air quality of the area.”

The coalition has asked the Ontario Divisional Court to review the matter—a hearing is set for November—and hopes a court order will hold the authority to a statutory mandate that “calls for them to plan or implement a system that’s in the long-term interest of the transportation needs of the people of Ontario.”

The Air Rail Link trains will launch with so-called Tier 4 diesel multiple units (DMUs)—that is, DMUs that meet the most recent standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the emission of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide. Ostler calls the “clean” diesel standard “the strictest nonroad engine emissions standard set by the U.S. EPA. Tier 4 technology reduces airborne particulate emissions by 90 percent and nitrogen oxides by 80 percent.”

A 2010 study by Metrolinx paints a mixed picture of the benefits of diesel versus electric, concluding, “There are transportation and economic benefits to electrification. There are also small environmental, social, and community benefits. Health benefits are expected to be marginal.”

The report,  GO Electrification Study , notes that while the locomotives of electric trains don’t emit greenhouse gases, the power plant that produces the electricity does. Electrifying the entire network would reduce the system’s emissions by 94 percent, but this reduction would account for only 0.32 percent of the region’s overall emissions.

Additionally, the report analyzed concentrations of such air contaminants as particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur oxides, and found that the impact with Tier 4 locomotives would “already be well below the stringent World Health Organization standards. As more corridors are electrified, the local air quality improves, but the health benefit associated with electrification is likely to be marginal.”

There are other issues as well. According to the report, electrification costs the most—ranging from $900 million for the electrification of the airport line to more than $4 billion for the electrification of the entire network—but electric locomotives are cheaper to maintain. They also accelerate and decelerate more quickly, reducing travel times by an estimate 2.4 to 2.8 minutes.

“Metrolinx continues to examine the possibility of electrification,” Ostler says, adding that the Province of Ontario has funded an environmental assessment to examine what would be required to convert the diesel line to an electric line with overhead wires. That assessment should be completed in 2014.

The transit authority is pushing to begin service in the first half of 2015, in time for the city of Toronto to host the Pan Am Games that summer. “This was the commitment made at the time of the proposal, that all orders of government submitted as part of the bid documents for the Games,” Ostler notes, “and we are committed to fulfilling our commitment.”

“This is the centerpiece of the regional system,” Ciccarelli responds. “Transportation arrangement can’t be made for a two-week sporting event.”



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