Clearing the air on GO’s Georgetown expansion: Toronto health manager voices concerns

A senior public health manager is at odds with province’s plan to rely on diesel-powered trains to move commuters and travellers along an expanded Georgetown GO-train corridor.

“We are very concerned about the Georgetown line … about it setting the stage for using diesel train technology for other facets of public transit improvement in the Greater Toronto Area,” Doctor Monica Campbell, the manager of Toronto’s Environmental Protection Office, said.

“Our concern is because we know that diesel exhaust has been identified as a probable human carcinogen by several agencies,” she said.

Both the province and the city of Toronto, acting through Metrolinx, are expanding rail capacity along the existing Georgetown line,  which currently runs from Toronto’s Union Station north to Brampton.

Plans call for the line to connect to Pearson International Airport and to be open in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games. It envisions the use of tier-4 diesel technology, a new but as-yet-untested clean version of the traditional diesel locomotive.

According to Dr. Campbell, the line will mostly affect Toronto residents living along the heavily-populated, inner-city route: “If they’ve [the residents] got some underlying health issues, living beside an expanded diesel train service is going to … very likely have some significant health impacts on them,” she said.

Newly-installed provincial transportation minister, Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile is confident in the new diesel technology.

“The diesel technology that’s being used meets the most stringent emissions standards that are currently in place,” she said. “We really believe that we’re doing the best we can to mitigate and avoid increasing pollution.”

Contrary to Dr. Campbell’s concerns, Wynne said any increase in diesel pollution will be more than offset by the number of cars taken off the road, as travellers opt for public transit to get to the busiest airport in Canada.

“Cars and trucks are the number one source of pollutants, so if we can take 18-million car trips off the road in the first year that is going to mean that the ambient air quality is better,” she said. “It’s very important that we do this.”

Although Dr. Campbell believes public transit is the way to go, she questions the reliance on old, dirty technology:

“We’re all strong supporters of public transit, but you’ve got to look at delivering clean, green public transit; transit that’s appropriate for this century, not last century’s kind of technology,” she said.

President and CEO of Metrolinx, Rob Prichard, said electrification of the whole line is being studied, but for now improved transportation is the attainable goal. He said estimates for electrifying the entire Metrolinx system fall between $6-to- 7-billion. Plans for the Georgetown upgrades are expected to cost $950-million.

“The decision to expand service making it safer and more reliable is essential whether the trains are diesel or electric,” he said. “We still need to make that corridor safer and reliable to take more trains.”

Prichard isn’t ruling out the possibility of electrification for the entire GO Transit system. Metrolinx is researching the technology over the next year and will file a report early in 2011

“For almost 30 years people have, at different times, contemplated (maybe) the electrification of the GO train system and we’ve done studies of various different lines and the possibility of electrification,” Pritchard said. “We’ve never done a comprehensive study of all the lines at once and all the issues of technology, cost, benefits and that’s what we’re doing this year.”

The Clean Train Coalition has also been vocal about the expansion and calls the comprehensive study “a delay tactic.”

“The superiority of electrification isn’t in dispute and even GO and Metrolinx have said that their long-term plan is to electrify,” Keith Brooks, a spokesperson for the coalition, told

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said.

One comment:

  1. Rob Prichard’s estimate of $6 or $7 billion to electrify the corridor is untrue, and greatly inflated. The initial electrification cost is $350 million for the Georgetown corridor, and will be recouped within ten years.

    Engineers know that as road capacity expands, so does traffic, so the roads will backfill with cars, adding more air pollution, in addition to the rail expansion, so pollution will double.

    Minister Wynne, who has been shifted from Minister of Transport from Minister of Education, should be concerned and protective of the schools and daycares which will be affected. The Liberals, who are touting childcare, are running these trains within 1.2 km of 76 schools, 96 daycares, and 4 hospitals, adding to the $2.2 billion per annum it costs OHIP because of air pollution in the GTA. (Source: Medical Officer of Health)

    One of these daycares, the YMCA High Park Daycare, is within 25 meters of the five tracks of the Georgetown corridor. Tier 4 ‘clean diesel’ does not exist yet, and has not been tested on human health, and they will be building air monitoring stations near schools and playgrounds to monitor its affect.

    Disgusting? Beyond belief when children’s health and lung capacity is at stake because a government does not want to do the right thing- electrify from the outset, and ask how much of this rail expansion and traffic is necessary to meet proven need.

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