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Could 15-minute train service become reality? And if so, when?

'Once you get down to a frequency of 15 minutes or less, now it’s starting to become a service that people can rely or count on to get them back and forth,' says professor

GO trains every 15 minutes on the Barrie line could be just the ticket for commuters.

Metrolinx, which operates the commuter trains, has plans to build a second rail line between Barrie and Toronto’s Union Station and offer, eventually, both-way, all-day service every quarter-hour. 

Professor Eric Miller with the Mobility Network, the transportation research institute at University of Toronto, says there is significance to that time frame.

“Once you get down to a frequency of 15 minutes or less, now it’s starting to become a service that people can rely or count on to get them back and forth whenever they need to,” he explained to BarrieToday. “If you miss one train, well there’s another train not too many minutes later.

“And the two-way, all-day, high-frequency service is something that would presumably encourage a lot more people to take the train just from a scheduling, convenience point of view," Miller added. 

Metrolinx says adding the extra track is part of its GO expansion plans on the Barrie line, with a goal of two-way, all-day service every 15 minutes to the Bradford GO station.

There are currently seven GO trains heading south on the Barrie line from Allandale Waterfront (which is the northern end of the line) and Barrie South GO stations on weekday mornings, seven coming back in the evening, as well as six trains each way on Saturdays and Sundays.

Like Miller, Metrolinx says 15-minute service will make it easier for commuters to travel without having to worry about checking a schedule.

“Once you get down to 15 minutes, and then 10, five, you’re getting into much more of an urban kind of transit system that will probably attract a lot more riders,” said Miller, who does travel/demand modelling for many of the municipalities in the region.

“So I think it (15-minute service) is a bit of a threshold, signalling we’re really providing a much more serious, heavy duty, useful, all-day service,” he said.

“You maybe have a late meeting, or something runs late and you miss the train. You have to wait another hour for the train. That’s not very attractive,” Miller added. “So the reliability and the convenience of the higher frequency services is really very important.”

Much needs to happen, however, before GO trains run that frequently on the Barrie line.

As part of adding that second line to the existing rail corridor, there are enabling works to be done — include removing existing vegetation, relocating underground and overhead utilities, installing noise barrier wall posts and panels, installing security fencing and replanting vegetation where required.

These enabling works are to be done by 2024, and the second set of tracks built after 2025.

Questions about how long this will take, when the tracks will be operational, what it will cost, and how many more trains GO will acquire for 15-minute service were not answered by GO Transit/Metrolinx.

Metrolinx did say, however, that its rail fleet includes 91 locomotives, 979 passenger coaches and 18 diesel multiple units.

And that it would begin with 30-minute service to Barrie on weekdays and 60-minute service on weekends.

GO trains, however, are not the only way Toronto-Barrie commuters get back and forth.

Highway 400 and its six always busy lanes remains the transportation route of choice for many commuters, although it would seem to be a polar opposite of taking the train.

And Ontario’s Transportation Ministry (MTO) is planning — and building, as residents can see — 10 lanes on the 400, replacing bridges (or overpasses/underpasses) in Barrie at Cundles Road, Anne Street, Essa Road, Sunnidale Road, and Dunlop Street. 

“I think part of it is you have different agencies looking at the problem from two different ways,” Miller said. “Metrolinx is looking at it from a transit point of view, and I think quite rightly saying we need a lot more trains in this area, so maybe we don’t have to have 10-lane highways out there.

“But you have the Ministry of Transportation, which is still largely a highway department, and they’re looking at roads and saying we have congestion and we have the knee-jerk reaction - which is we need more roads," he added. “And certainly this current provincial government is very highway-oriented and there are disconnects."

Miller said if we want to take climate change seriously, and not sprawl into our farm and natural land, we need to think about how we develop our towns and cities, and how we use transit and promote active transportation, such as biking and walking.

“To be spending all this money on transit and then spending all this money on big highways, that are going to compete with transit, is not good public policy, by and large,” he said.

Part of the problem, Miller says, is that all of these ways of getting people around are often tackled individually, instead of together.

Barrie council, very recently, has looked for solutions to bike lanes on city streets — to create lanes by merely painting lines on the side of roads or to have separated lanes, above curbs, which are safer but inevitably more expensive. 

“We don’t connect the dots,” Miller said. “To me, the discussion the city of Barrie should be having is what sort of city do we want to have 10, 20 years from now, what should it look like, how should we be getting around, how do these pieces fit together — including new land development.”

These decisions are important, he said, in part because once made and implemented they cannot be reversed.

“There really are two mentalities out there about how we should be building this region,” Miller said. “One is, quite frankly, 1950s-centric of low-density (urban) sprawl, totally highway-based, auto-based. The other is thinking more about how do we build more compact but complete communities, very attractive communities, that will be more transit-oriented.

“People will still have cars, but they won’t have to use them for everything and particularly for commuting.”

This struggle is many decades in the making, Miller said, and it will continue

“It’s very important, because once you widen the 400 to 10 lanes, you’ve got it forever right and once you’ve done that, trying to encourage people to use the GO train instead — but you spent all this money — is going to be that much more difficult

“Once shovels are in the ground, we’re going to live with that a long, long time.”