Subway versus LRT debate ignores real issues

Residents of the Greater Toronto Area will be aware that Toronto City Council has just concluded a gruelling debate over whether to extend the subway into Scarborough or whether to build a Light Rail Transit line. In brief, it seems that the key issues are:

  • cost (LRT wins, meaning that more lines can be built for the same amount of money)
  • distance between stations (LRT has closer stations)
  • number of homes within walking distance of a station (LRT wins, hands down)
  • time taken for a journey (subway wins)

Of course, as with any political debate, many other issues, some real and some less so, intruded. A few council members, including the mayor, were convinced that LRT interferes more with vehicular traffic, apparently not understanding the concept of dedicated rights of way and grade separations (bridges).

GallonDaily believes that time taken for a journey may be the most important issue for the travelling public. No subway or light rain system in Canada provides for express trains. A one way trip on the Toronto subway from Scarborough to downtown Toronto is going to take more than an hour, with many trips involving a change of trains at a highly congested station. LRT will involve two changes of train and even longer than the subway. For most passengers on most days, driving their car will be quicker and a lot more comfortable.

A very intelligent alternative from the non-profit transportation advocacy group Transport Action Canada, formerly Transport 2000 Canada, has been almost completely ignored in the Toronto subway versus LRT debate. TAC is advocating what they call a “surface subway”, electric trains running at near subway frequencies on new track laid on existing railway rights of way. The authors of the report point out that this approach is quite common in Europe, with the London Overground and the Paris RER being systems with which readers may be familiar.

Overground systems (we prefer overground to the oxymoronic ‘surface subway’, though this term is no doubt designed to explain things to politicians who may not understand as much as they should about travelling on trains) are much cheaper than either subways or LRTs on new alignments, have more flexibility, allow for express trains, and deliver travellers to their destination more quickly and more comfortably than any other public transportation alternative. GallonDaily’s editor knows from experience that commuting on a subway for an hour or more one way is boring, frustrating, and uncomfortable. Commuting for the same amount of time on Toronto’s surface GO train system is not at all boring and is reasonably comfortable as long as the train is not too crowded.

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Regional Rapid Rail report,  prepared for Transport Action Ontario by Karl Junkin, describes in detail how an overground rail system could be implemented to provide a substantial improvement in public transit across the entire region, including Scarborough. Though the plans themselves are specific to the GTHA, the concepts are applicable to any large urban area contemplating the need for fast, comfortable and convenient public transit services.

The report can be found at

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