Returning to Full Subway Capacity

by Markus O'Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

Transit capacity, particularly on the Line 1 (Yonge) subway, used to be a big topic in Willowdale. There were days before the pandemic that a trip from Willowdale to City Hall (or the return) felt like spending an hour as cozy as a sardine in its can.

Riders were frustrated because it had been decades without significant transit growth. The City's comprehensive "Transit City" LRT plan was scrapped in 2010, and Council was gridlocked on whether to build a subway extension in Scarborough.

In 2019 and 2020, transit in Toronto was turned on its head. The Government of Ontario stepped in by announcing $30-billion worth of transit expansions, including Scarborough, and the extension of both Line 1 and the Eglinton LRT, and the long discussed "relief line," now known as the Ontario Line.

What would all the new riders these lines attracted do to the already strained capacity issues on Line 1? The prospect raised legitimate worries.

Then COVID-19 arrived and suddenly nobody was worried. With a cash crunch at City Hall and low-ridership being a much more immediate concern than crowding, discussion of these issues all but ended.

Today, as we work through pandemic recovery, Line 1 carries only about 52% of the passengers it did previously. Those numbers are going to grow again, and we should be thinking ahead to make sure we're prepared.

Some may believe that we're in a new world where remote work is here to stay and that regular commutes are a thing of the past. But remote work is only practical for a portion of the workforce, and many large employers have already started phasing workers back to offices.

Even if some remote work is here to stay, the sheer speed of growth in the area will replace and likely surpass any lost ridership. The Province of Ontario projects that the population of the GTA will grow by over 40% over the next 25 years. And the three busiest designated growth centers in Ontario are all connected by the Line 1 subway.

More riders will be relying on Line 1 in early 2023 when the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is finally connected. More will be added in 2030 when Line 1 is extended, connecting more quickly densifying neighbourhoods to the north.

Plans were in place before the pandemic to add capacity on Line 1 and divert transit users to other routes. Line 1's automated (ATC) signal installation will be completed this year. When paired with renovations at Yonge-Bloor station to improve the speed of boarding and exiting trains, the estimated capacity on Line 1 jumps by up to 25%. That work at Bloor station also starts this year.

The electrification of Metrolinx's GO lines will double train service during peak periods, and quadruple it during off-periods. Along with five new "SmartTrack" stations expected to be operation on electrified tracks by 2026, GO trains will help divert riders from east and west. So too will the Ontario Line, which initially was targeted for 2030. It will be built south from Eglinton at Don Mills and turning west along Queen Street connecting to Exhibition Place and is a pre-requisite for the Line 1 extension.

Though these projects may keep Line 1 functioning over the coming years, they won't be enough longer term. The City and Provincial governments need to come back to the table and get serious about the next set of transit expansion projects. These might include extending the Ontario Line north to the Sheppard Subway, and connecting the Finch West LRT to Yonge. We need more parallel transit routes to Yonge and shouldn't be complacent while ridership is lower than normal. Nobody wants to go back to the sardine can.

On beautiful Friday evenings in July, there's nowhere I'd rather be than with you in Mel Lastman Square. For more than 10 years, it's been my joy to be there on those nights, satisfying my creative ur