The GO-ALRT Program

By Peter Drost, with assistance by Jordan Kerim.
Revised by James Bow.

The GO-ALRT (Government of Ontario Advanced Light Rail Transit) program is one of the great "ifs" in the history of public transportation in Southern Ontario. Although GO-ALRT died in the mid-1980's, the proposal ranks with Sir Adam Beck's ambitious radial system and Metro Toronto's Transportation 2011 Network plans in both size and scope.

If built it would have consisted of two main lines. One line would have paralleled (and replaced) GO's Lakeshore line from Hamilton to Oshawa. A second line would have arced north from Oakville to Pickering via Mississauga City Centre, Pearson Airport, North York City Centre and Scarborough Town Centre. According a map of this system, it appears as if the northern east-west section of track would run along the Finch Avenue Hydro corridor. A third line, in very early planning stages, would have linked downtown Brampton with the North and Lakeshore lines. In total there would have been 201 km of track and the system was expected to cost $2.6 billion in 1980 dollars.

The Vehicle

The vehicle proposed for GO-ALRT looked similar to the cars selected for the Scarborough RT line. Like the RT, the ALRT cars were to be a driverless system with "steerable" axles that turned and banked with the curves for greater speed and less stress on wheels and rail. Unlike the Scarborough RT, however, the GO ALRT vehicles would not be powered by linear induction motors, but rather by eight 600V DC rotary electric motors. A pantograph would draw power from a 25 kV AC overhead-wire supply system and propelled the train at speeds up to 120 km/h. The cars would achieve an average speed around 70 km/h along standard gauge track laid on wooden sleepers and ballast. Because of the cars' lightness and turning ability, the trains would travel at grade where possible, but could also duck under obstacles through tunnels or pass over road and rail crossings on an elevated guideway.

The GO ALRT vehicle went through several redesigns throughout the planning stages of the project. Initially, the cars started out with almost ICTS proportions (short, narrow cars coupled together to form longer trains), but as planning progressed, these cars lengthened out and obtained articulated sections. One design called for a 36 metre long articulated vehicle with "spacious" seating for 124 passengers. A design that followed called for a 45 metre long vehicle. No explanation was given for the redesigns, although it appears as though the engineers were addressing concerns that the original designs could not handle the passenger loads predicted for the system.

The Routes

The designers of the GO-ALRT system envisioned lines stretching across the GTA from Hamilton to Oshawa via two branches -- one running through downtown Toronto and the other through northern North York. Stations would be set three kilometres apart. The first two sections of the GO ALRT network would have run from downtown Hamilton to Oakville GO station in the west and downtown Oshawa to Pickering GO station in the east. The final location for the Hamilton station had not been chosen by the time the first designs were revealed, but the western line would have seen intermediate stops at Aldershot, Brant Street, Appleby Line, Third Line, Fourth Line and Trafalger Road. In the east, stops would have been placed (from west to east) at Liverpool Road, Westney Road, Brock Street, Hopkins Street, Stevenson Road and just east of Harmony Road at the Oshawa-Bowmanville border.

There was considerable controversy with the western alignment, particularly with the route it took through Hamilton. Ideas ranged from using the old Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo station on Hunter Street, on the south end of Hamilton's Downtown, to another station at the bottom of James Street, to a new alignment entirely, running through a tunnel or elevated guideway along York Street through downtown Hamilton. It was the York Street proposal that generated considerable opposition from the community and local business associations. In the end, GO finally settled upon using the TH&B station on Hunter Street to extend service to Hamilton, but only after the GO-ALRT program was dead. To the east, the considerably less controversial idea of paralleling the 401 allowed the project to develop much quicker. By the time the GO-ALRT project was cancelled, enough property had been purchased for GO to build on its own rail right-of-way between Pickering and Whitby.

These two routes (Oakville to Hamilton and Pickering to Oshawa) were designed to handle 7,500 passengers per hour per direction initially, although critics lampooned the suggestion of having ALRT trains at five minute intervals connecting with GO commuter trains operating at twenty minute intervals. However, engineers believed that the system could be upgraded to carry as many as 25,000 passengers per hour per direction with trains operating as frequently as every two minutes. The connection with standard GO trains at Oakville and Pickering was meant to be only temporary, as the two GO-ALRT sections would eventually be joined together by two routes, one running along the old GO Lakeshore line, and the via a new alignment through central Mississauga and northern Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough.

The Northern Proposal

By 1985, the northern route of the GO-ALRT system was under study. Because of a lack of space for right-of-ways across the region, it was thought that GO-ALRT trains could run in existing Hydro corridors. Specifically, as it would have pertained to Toronto, planners were looking at the Richview-Cherrywood Corridor located just north of Finch Avenue, from Weston Road to the Rouge River.

Planners consulted with Ontario Hydro in a GO-ALRT report that looked at all the major hydro corridors across the region. Most were thought to be able to accommodate a GO-ALRT train, either at or below grade or on an elevated platform, but some changes would have to be made to the hydro corridors in order to accommodate the trains. The report also laid out the minimum clearances a GO-ALRT train could be from the towers.

It is interesting to note that, at the same time as the province of Ontario and Ontario Hydro were working together on this report, the Toronto Transit Commission was also studying the Richview-Cherrywood hydro corridor for public transit use. The TTC paying particular attention to the section between Dufferin Street and McCowan Road as the route of a possible LRT. It concluded that this corridor was not feasible, and that having to alter the configuration of the transmission towers would have proven too expensive. However, the TTC also considered whether the corridor could be feasibly used to build a busway, and the report concluded that, "A busway fit is feasible without altering the existing hydro faciliites". The only drawback with the busway was that planners would have had a hard time lighting the road way in places due to space constraints for the lighting facilities. In other words, even a busway would have been a tight fight.

The GO/Hydro report on the northern GO-ALRT alignment did not indicate where stations could be placed -- it was still too early in the design process. As well, a lot of technical issues still had to be ironed out. The report noted that only a couple of electric railways in the world travelled close to or within power transmission corridors. This meant that there were only a couple of precedents, so practical guidelines for construction next to power lines were not likely to exist. The report's sample railways included the Queensland Railway in Australia, the Netherlands Railway, and British Rail. In the case of British Rail, the report cited a 160 kilometre route featuring 25 kV overhead line equipment running between Carlisle and Motherwell, paralleling 275 kV high voltage power lines.

The big "unknown" for planners was the effect electrical fields would have on the riders, the trains and the general environment. Planners worried that cardiac pacemakers might be affected by fluctuations in the electrical field. The report cited other potential problems including, grounding, bonding, electromagnetic interference and the effects on pipelines due to electromagnetic induction.

According to the GO/Hydro report a route could be made through the hydro towers. Some of the route would have to be below grade, while other sections might have to elevated and some towers moved. However, with the demise of GO-ALRT, the northern route remained nothing more than a vague proposal with a set of quirky, unresolved electrical problems.

The Big "What If"

The GO-ALRT program was ambitious not only in its scope, but also in its vision. In the 1970s, the concept of a Greater Toronto Area was in its infancy. While urban growth had started spilling out of Metropolitan Toronto's boundaries, traffic was increasing on provincial highways into Toronto and ridership was growing throughout the GO Transit network, to say that the concept of a network of high-speed electric trains spanning the GTA and operating at subway speeds and frequencies was bold was an understatement. That work got as far as the purchasing of property and the grading of routes illustrates that the GO-ALRT project could have been built and, if it had been, it could have substantially transformed the Greater Toronto Area through the 1980s and the 1990s.

Looking back, the GO-ALRT program accurately predicted the scope and breadth of growth through the Toronto region, and had enough funding been committed in the mid-1980s, services could be operating today, paralleling such major highway corridors as the 407 and connecting significant centres within the region, including downtown Mississauga, downtown North York, and Pickering. The service would have been able to compete against the travel times of Highway 407 and 401 in the way the Lakeshore GO line competes against the travel times of the Queen Elizabeth Way.

The beauty of the GO-ALRT system was that it was regional in scope. It took into account the coming diverse travel patterns between major centres and destinations around the whole area. Best of all, with light, driverless trains it would have been relatively cheap to operate. If the system ran today there is little doubt that it would have been very useful to many people.

James Snow Speaks For Himself

The GO-ALRT program was very much the brain child of Ontario premier Bill Davis and his transportation minister, James Snow. James Snow talked about his feelings regarding the program and its subsequent abandonment. The following is taken from his autobiography:

"I believe that my biggest disappointment over my years in government took place within weeks of my leaving the Ministers Office in M.T.C. This was the total scrapping of all the plans for the new, GO Transit, Advanced Light Rail System. This happened as soon as Bill Davis and I were away from the cabinet table. I am sure it was a decision of the new Minister, George McCauge and the new Treasurer, Larry Grossman, but Frank Miller surely must have been in on the discussion and this major decision.

"To me this will prove to have been the a most devastating decision ever taken by a Government in recent times to the people of the Greater Metro Region of Ontario. The plan was a good, well thought out addition to the Ontario transportation system that will someday have to be built, or Metro will completely strangle and choke in traffic jams as it is already doing today. I know the cost was high but it will never be lower. The plan could have been implemented in stages, over perhaps 20 years, as I had planned to do, as funds were available.

"The plan included a direct ALRT link to Toronto International Airport from the total area between Oshawa and Hamilton, where a population of nearly five million people already reside. We all know how badly that is needed today. The most disgusting thing is that there was not even any action taken to protect the rights of way for future building of these lines.

"You can possibly understand Grossman wanting to cancel GO ALRT, as it did not do anything for his St Andrew-St Patrick riding, but it is hard to believe that Miller and McCague would have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel. This decision will cost us dearly in the future. Already portions of the plan are being built at greatly increased costs on a piecemeal basis.

GO-ALRT's Impact Today

The final blow to the GO-ALRT project came when federal legislation changed the relationship between GO Transit and the freight railroads it operated on. The new legislation gave higher priority to passenger trains on rail lines and removed one of the reasons GO was considering building lines on its own right-of-way in the first place. It suddenly became several million dollars less expensive to build the GO ALRT extensions using conventional commuter train technology and rights of way rather than new tracks.

James Snow's statement and prediction that GO Transit would have to implement the GO-ALRT network piecemeal and at higher cost, has largely proven accurate. As early as the late 1980s, GO Transit began implementing the initial concepts of the GO-ALRT program using conventional commuter rail trains and buses. The number of GO stations have increased and service has expanded. The Pickering-to-Oshawa right-of-way acquired by GO Transit, intended for use by GO ALRT vehicles, was built to commuter rail standards instead, and train service was extended east. GO has also purchased some of Canadian National tracks' outright, allowing it to substantially increase service on many of its routes. As of 2013, GO Transit's Lakeshore line operates between Aldershot and Oshawa at intervals of 30 minutes or better, seven days a week. In 2011, work began to improve the tracks on GO's Kitchener train line, and to build a premium shuttle service between Union Station and Toronto's airport, known as the Union-Pearson Express.

In spite of these improvements, GO Transit and its new owners Metrolinx, have a long way to go and billions of dollars to invest on a number of initiatives deemed critical to improve public transportation throughout the Greater Toronto Area by 2031. The continuous two-minute headways envisioned by the GO-ALRT proposal are not possible with the current set of GO trains. Metrolinx acknowledges that such increases might be possible if the GO Lakeshore and other routes were converted to electric operation, and it has identified this project as a priority, but the billions this would cost have not been acquired.

As for GO-ALRT's proposed northern line, GO Transit has implemented some of this using buses along Highway 407. The service, established in 2000 connecting York University to Oshawa in the east and Mississauga and Oakville in the west, proved popular with riders, and service has increased to the point that GO Transit is investing in double-decker buses to ply portions of the route. Work is currently taking place to build a transitway paralleling Highway 403 through Mississauga, which could be part of a 100 kilometre busway stretching across the top of Toronto from Oakville to Pickering. Again, Metrolinx is spending millions of dollars on critical initiatives that are still years away from completion to duplicate a system that GO-ALRT envisioned could be built and operating today, if investments had been made in 1985.

The GO ALRT project was tarnished somewhat by its (erroneous) association with the ICTS experiment on the Scarborough RT. There were many who criticized the province for going with untested technology over a perfectly suitable commuter rail system. But was the GO ALRT a technological boondoggle? Or was it a transportation vision that was decades ahead of its time? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. However, we can only look back on the GO-ALRT project, now, and wonder at what might have been.

(Update February 24, 2002) Mark Walton adds: The Peterson Liberal government, more than anyone else, may be responsible for GO-ALRT's demise. Ed Fulton, who was Transportation Minister in the Peterson minority government (1985-87) was barely in office when he requested a feasibility study of using regular GO trains for full-time service to Hamilton.. He said that since the bilevel cars had been developed recently (1978) and in Ontario (by the then Hawker Siddeley), they would give "more blast for the bucks", to paraphrase Wintario advertising of those days. He did not want the bilevels to be pushed aside after less than a decade in service, in favor of an unproven system like GO-ALRT. At that time, I was editor of Transit News Canada magazine, and my opinion was much the same as Mr. Fulton's.

GO ALRT Image Archive