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Ontario's Minister of the Environment approves diesel trains
for Georgetown South corridor -- with conditions



The Honourable John Gerritsen, Ontario Minister of the Environment, has approved a controversial proposal to allow hundreds of new diesel trains to pass through some neighbourhoods in west-end Toronto.

Metrolinx wants to expand GO Transit’s south Georgetown corridor to link Toronto Pearson International Airport with Union Station and expand service to and from Brampton as part of “The Big Move”, the regional transportation plan for the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton.

When trains start operating along the line in 2015, total traffic on the Georgetown corridor may increase to more than 400 diesel trains a day from about 50.

The Clean Train Coalition and other community groups have opposed the proposal, saying emissions from the diesel trains would hurt the health of thousands of people who live in the area around the tracks. The tracks stretch through parts of Parkdale, the Junction and Weston on their way toward Brampton and Georgetown.

Conditions

To reduce the health concerns of the community, the Ministry of Environment has drawn up a list of 18 strict conditions that Metrolinx has to meet when building the line and any other lines that it plans in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton. The Minister requires Metrolinx:

  • to use new low-sulphur diesel locomotives that emit 90 per cent fewer particles and 80 per cent fewer nitrous oxides than traditional locomotives.
  • to conduct further studies on air quality and work to reduce potential risk factors as they arise.
  • to consult with people who live along the tracks on its plan to monitor air quality and minimize risk factors.
Electrifying

But the community groups oppose diesel trains outright and have said any new trains must be electric. In a media release, the Clean Train Coalition points out that no-one has yet developed the technology that the Minister is requiring Metrolinx to use nor can anyone guarantee that the technology will be commercially available by the time Metrolinx has to order locomotives.

Even if Metrolinx can find appropriate trains to buy, the Coalition says, they likely will cost more than investing in electric trains would have in the first place. Modern electric trains already surpass the emissions standards.

Metrolinx has said electric trains are an option in the future. But it also estimates the cost to electrify the line at $1.5-billion and that’s too expensive to implement immediately, it says.

Health

Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, has said that the new diesel trains could have significant impact on public health. He wrote to the Ministry of the Environment that expanding the line and operating diesel trains could result in poorer air quality.

According to Toronto Public Health, diesel exhaust can particularly affect people suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Several other agencies, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, also identify diesel exhaust as a probable human carcinogen.

Metrolinx, however, has said that operating diesel trains does not increase the risk of cancer for people living near the tracks. It asserts that it will use the greenest diesel fuels available. It also says that the system can operate “safely without posing a risk to human health on most days.” However, it also explains that, on bad smog days, it will use a “mitigation plan” to limit harmful exhaust.

Air quality

According to Metrolinx, the project would improve air quality by shifting people from cars to state-of-the-art diesel trains. The engines on these trains would meet the toughest emission standards when new technology is available commercially.

This means, Metrolinx says, that the trains that will go through the neighbourhooods each day would have the newest technology, reducing about 90 per cent particulate matter and 80 percent nitrogen oxides over current engines.

Toronto Public Health reports that, each year in Toronto, air pollution results in about 6,000 people being admitted to hospital and 1,700 people dying prematurely. Metrolinx expects that operating the new line will reduce those figures by attracting more commuters to transit. More commuters using transit removes tens of thousands of car trips a year from our roads. That, in turn, decreases the amount of harmful exhaust that private vehicles emit into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by over 100 kilotonnes annually.


Transit advocate Steve Munro writes about the Minister’s approval of diesel trains on his website here.

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