Angry Robot

The Toronto Downtown Relief Line

Last week I tweeted “Fun fact: the Sheppard subway has lower ridership than the Queen streetcar.” This is true, according to TTC numbers, which say the Sheppard line had 47,700 riders per day in 2010, whereas the 501 Queen had 43,500 and the 502 and 503 Queen have 7,800 (also from the TTC). So hearing Ford and his “rump of sycophants” (nice turn of phrase, Gee) force this issue into a suburbs vs. downtown battle royale, in which the hideous downtown elites want to hog all the subways for themselves and force real people to ride “trolley cars” or “fancy streetcars”, well, it’s frustrating. I’m one of the theoretical downtowners who wedges himself into the trolley car every day. I think of the near-empty cars sailing through Toronto’s least busy subway station, Bessarion, and try to pretend I’m hogging a subway right now.

I may not need to pretend much longer. New TTC Chief Andy Byford has been doing more than whisper about the awkwardly-named Downtown Relief Line:

“Fundamentally, there will come a point with the city’s population increasing exponentially where we do need that new capacity,” Mr. Byford said. “The downtown relief line has got to be looked at and has got to be talked about right now.”

The DRL is an idea that has been floating around in some form for many decades. As this Spacing post nicely summarizes, a 1911 proposal was for Toronto to have Bloor, Yonge, and Queen subway lines. The 1985 plan “Network 2011”, which also proposed the Sheppard subway, positioned the downtown relief line as a way to relieve congestion at Bloor and Yonge:

The first phase of the DRL would have been built to relieve the Yonge line south of Bloor and at Bloor-Yonge Station, by encouraging downtown-bound passengers from the Danforth line to transfer at a point further east to avoid Yonge. Following the study of different route options, the alignment chosen would have met the Danforth subway at Pape Station, running under Pape to Eastern Avenue and across following the railway and Front Street to Union Station and on to Spadina Avenue on the west.

Here’s a map of that plan, courtesy blogTO:

Transit expert Steve Munro recently examined the 1985 plan:

The Sheppard subway was expected to have 15,400 peak riders by 2011, but the actual number on the existing line is 4,500. The projected peak demand for the full line in 2011 is now 6-10,000.
[…] The Downtown Relief line was projected to have 11,700 peak riders by 2011, and the demand projection today is 12,000. This is no surprise given that the DRL would serve a demand that actually existed 25 years ago, rather than a notional demand in a regional plan.

How’s that for downtown subways? Here are a couple of maps of possible DRL routes:

Those are obviously quite different. First, the western part is considered by Munro and others less urgent, since the University line already relieves the Yonge line travel from the west. But
there are also capacity problems at Union station, so that might not be the best intersection point with the Yonge-University line.

Why is this line a subway and not LRT? First, there is no space for the downtown part to be above ground. Secondly, given that as much as 40% of the peak Yonge line traffic might divert to take the DRL, and also considering the high ridership on the Queen car as well as the neighbouring King and Dundas lines (57,300 on King, 31,000 on Dundas), the demand already warrants a subway.

How feasible is this line? It would cost somewhere between $3- and $9-billion, depending on length and route chosen. The Sheppard subway extension would have cost $3-billion. It wasn’t funded, but council has asked for a study of “new revenue tools” (i.e. taxes) that might pay for transit expansion, and has also moved to consider the Downtown Relief Line. Obviously, the new head of the TTC is a proponent. As this fascinating article makes vividly clear, the Yonge line is already at capacity.

If Rob Ford’s re-election pitch is going to be “subways, subways, subways”, relief line advocacy might be an effective way for more progressive councilors to save themselves from being branded “anti-subway”. I suppose this is a downtown elitist subway, but there are DRL proposals that have it going up the Don and connecting with the upcoming Eglinton LRT. This would be a good way of making sure Eglinton Station itself doesn’t go the way of Bloor-Yonge.

But before that, perhaps it needs a better name? Downtown Elite Line?