TTC – DRL (Downtown Relief Line) = New Subway Line


Two TTC subway cars travelling in opposite directions (north/south) passing each other in the Yonge subway tunnel. A new dowtown relief line would help reduce crowding. This idea is over a century old.

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If you have ever travelled weekdays by subway during rush hour (between 6-10 a.m. or 4-8 p.m.) you’ll know how congested and busy it can get.

Sometimes, while standing at the front of the platform, with anxious, impatient people lining up beside you and behind you, it doesn’t take much to imagine that you could easily end up on the tracks in front of a train, if the crowd just pushes foward, alittle bit.  The lines are so crowded, especially southbound on the Yonge St. subway train, that there are several rows or layers of people always waiting behind you.

As each train stops and passengers exit, the people at the front of the line (hopefully behind the yellow line) move in, until the train is full.  The train leaves and the people that were in the second or third row, now line up to the front, waiting for the next train and are quickly replaced by a new wave of people that have come from the street or the bloor-danforth train, down below.

This happens weekday and has been happening for years now.  This practice cannot cease until a way to divert the traffic is found and implemented.  The sooner the better.

A crowd packs the Yonge subway platform at Bloor on a recent weekday morning. The line has been at capacity for more than a decade.A crowd packs the Yonge subway platform at Bloor on a recent weekday morning. The line has been at full capacity for more than a decade.

How do you spell relief if you ride the south end of the Yonge subway?

D-R-L — downtown relief line.

Since 1910, when the idea first emerged of a transit line connecting the east end of Toronto with the south end of Yonge St., the DRL has gained very little traction.

But the concept has resurfaced lately. Crowding is already so bad at the south end of Yonge St. that new TTC chief Andy Byford immediately identified a DRL as a priority.

There is a chorus of experts who suggest that Mayor Rob Ford has been crusading for the wrong subway on Sheppard Ave. E.; that he could better serve suburban constituents by focusing on a downtown relief line.

“We’ve got to turn our attention back to the core, where the density is,” insists Toronto transportation planning guru Ed Levy.

“The downtown is starving, and it is being served by the oldest, most constricted stations in the city,” he said.

But downtowners can walk or use streetcars. The pain at the bottom of Yonge St. is as much a suburban commuter’s problem as a condo dweller’s.

It becomes “ludicrous,” said Levy, when you factor in the ambitions of York Region to extend the subway up to Richmond Hill, where new riders would only add to the crowds cramming platforms down the line at Dundas and Queen.

The Yonge line has been at capacity for more than a decade, and it’s only because development patterns have changed that it continues to limp along, said Bill Dawson, the TTC’s director of routes and service planning.

“A couple of things have kept a lid on this issue. GO has absorbed a lot of the ridership into downtown over those 15 years. The other big factor is condos downtown. Residential downtown has . . . a higher proportion of people working downtown that don’t have to take the subway,” he said.

Metrolinx’s 25-year regional transit plan includes a downtown relief line in the years beyond the plan itself. But in November, it was looking at a DRL as part of a solution to the looming capacity crisis at Union Station.

Although Metrolinx officials refused to be interviewed last week, their earlier report includes a scenario in which a DRL runs southwest from Danforth Ave. past Union Station, terminating at a secondary station around Exhibition Place.

But that scenario isn’t ambitious enough for Eric Miller, cities centre director at the University of Toronto. The DRL’s potential goes beyond solving capacity issues. Some iterations have shown it running as far north as Eglinton Ave.

“The big question is, what does it look like and where do you put it? There’s a lot of options, some better than others,” he said.

The identification of the DRL as a “downtown” line is somewhat misleading because it has the potential to be the subway suburbanites crave, Miller said.

“It should go up into Scarborough, it should go up into Etobicoke. It’s a way for people from Scarborough and Etobicoke to get downtown without having to traipse all the way over to Yonge St.,” he said.

It could also serve, said Miller, as “a spine that you build the Scarborough transit system around.”

Transit blogger Steve Munro agrees that a DRL “has a function in its own right. It’s not just there to give you a way to get around Bloor and Yonge.”

Running the DRL farther northeast allows it to pick up commuters from two important neighbourhoods, Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park.

Munro puts the cost at more than $4 billion — in the range certainly of the projected Sheppard subway price tag. The density of the downtown mandates an underground transit line, and the stations would have to be deep.

Meantime, Dawson says, the TTC will continue to wring every bit of capacity possible out of the Yonge-University subway. By the end of the year it will be furnished entirely with the roomier Toronto Rocket trains, and by 2017 a new computerized signalling system will allow trains to run closer together. Some current riders will be diverted to the west side of the line when the Spadina extension into York Region opens in 2015.

But in 20 years, that additional capacity will also be maxed out.

The road to relief

• GO integration. The TTC and Metrolinx are looking at how some TTC riders could migrate to GO. But the pricing would have to be more attractive to city riders, who have traditionally been penalized by GO’s fare system, says blogger Steve Munro. He also notes that GO trains are so popular with regional commuters, they’re usually stuffed with people by the time they get close to downtown.

• Name change. Calling it a “downtown” relief line is misleading, says U of T’s Eric Miller, because the largest benefits could accrue to suburbanites.

The word “relief” suggests the transit line is an add-on to the rest of the system, when it should be an important link in the network in its own right, says Munro.

• Funding. A DRL is a priority, but without a revenue source, Toronto can’t realistically think about construction, said TTC chair Karen Stintz, who floated the idea of putting transit on a referendum tied to the next municipal election.

There’s a growing belief that the best way to fund transit is a regional sales tax, Stintz said. She fears that unless some way is found to divorce transit expansion from election cycles, the city could be stuck.

Metrolinx needs to bolster its governance by putting municipal politicians back on the board or otherwise seeking their input into the revenue strategy it is mandated to produce by June 2013.

Otherwise, the province could be faced with a situation in which Mayor Rob Ford runs for re-election in 2014 on a platform opposing new transit taxes.

“Or he wins and we have a separate vote on the revenue tools and they both win,” said Stintz.

But, she said, it would “be odd if everyone in the region except Toronto votes for revenue tools. Then everyone in the region gets their transit and the DRL just becomes something we continue to dream about.”

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