Hamilton Commuter Rail: A Proposal
With all-day Toronto-Hamilton GO Transit train service to become a reality within the next few years, it’s time to take a look at commuter rail expansion beyond Hamilton. GO Transit has mentioned extending train service to Stoney Creek, and is currently running trains to Niagara Falls on weekends in the summer. However, this article will explore an alternative scenario that has not been mentioned: a second commuter rail network in the Golden Horseshoe, one that is centered on Hamilton, not Toronto.
This article is a rewrite of a previous article. This rewrite is necessary due to announcements made by Metrolinx of long term improvements to GO Transit's train service in Hamilton as well as the proposals for rapid transit in Hamilton itself.
The Central Hub
A Hamilton system will require a station to act as its hub, much like Toronto’s Union Station does for GO Transit. This station would be the main station for the city of Hamilton, and would allow riders to transfer between Hamilton trains or to GO Transit. Hamilton currently has two existing facilities that could act as a central hub: The Hamilton GO Centre or the former railway station on James Street, LIUNA Station.
Hamilton GO Centre
In several ways the Hamilton GO Centre would be the ideal central hub for a commuter network. The railway station is directly connected to most of the existing Hamilton area railway lines, and its location with respect to the downtown core is excellent. This facility is currently served by GO Transit, both bus and train routes, it is close to most HSR routes and is Hamilton’s intercity Bus Terminal.
The previous version of this article recommended the use of the Hamilton GO Centre as the hub for a Hamilton Commuter rail system. However, there are three major problems with the GO Centre. None of them are impossible to overcome, but all three will require large amounts of money, and will impact hundreds of residents directly, in some cases permanently. The three problems are the Hunter Street tunnel, a section of railway track in East Hamilton known as the Belt Line, and the number of tracks and platforms at the Hamilton GO Centre.
Hunter Street Tunnel
The Hunter Street Tunnel is a single track circular tunnel, running underneath Hunter Street between Park St and Queen St, just west of the Hamilton GO Centre. The tunnel used to be double-tracked, but was converted to single track a few decades ago due to height restrictions from newer, taller railcars. At the time it decided that the drop in capacity through the tunnel was less of an issue than the cost of lowering the tunnel floor to allow for taller railcars. Although the tunnel is adequate for current freight operations and a handful of GO Trains, it would become a major bottleneck in operations if it were to be used by frequent commuter trains. Proposals have been made to double-track the tunnel by lowering the floor, but if the Hamilton GO Centre were to become the hub of a commuter rail network, then double-tracking would not be enough. Triple tracking of this tunnel would be necessary, and there are several high-rises along Hunter Street whose foundations would probably interfere with a reconstruction of this size.
The Belt Line
The Belt line is a CPR (formerly TH&B) single-tracked low speed freight line that runs northeast from the railway mainline near Gage & Lawrence. It passes underneath the CNR Hamilton-Niagara line west of Ottawa Street. The Belt line represents the only reasonable way to get commuter trains running to and from Grimsby to the Hamilton GO Centre.
In an earlier version of this article I advocated using this line. But having looked more closely at the route, I’ve realized that it is need of significant upgrades to go from a low speed freight line into a line suitable for commuter traffic. The line would have to be double-tracked for its entire length, and the fact that it crosses four major streets (Main, King, Cannon, and Barton) at street level means that putting frequent train service on this line would result in traffic nightmares in Hamilton’s East End. As a result the line would have to be elevated above the roads. Also, the Belt Line passes underneath the CNR Hamilton-Niagara mainline. A connection between the two lines would have to be built through the residential neighbourhood northwest of the intersection of Ottawa & Barton.
All of these requirements would mean that in order to upgrade this line, a large number of homes and businesses would have to be expropriated and demolished by the city in order for construction to proceed.
Tracks and platforms at the Hamilton GO Centre
In its current state, the Hamilton GO Centre has two tracks and one platform. In order to handle GO trains, several other commuter lines, and allow for CPR trains to pass through the site, large scale expansion of the station would be required. It would be possible to add 2 platforms and 3 or 4 tracks to the south side of the station over the current bus terminal. This would require the expropriation and demolition of buildings both west and east of the Hamilton GO centre for the approach tracks.
The LIUNA station, formerly the Canadian National Railway’s Hamilton station, is located on James Street in the North End, well away from the downtown core. The station has been renovated into a banquet hall, but could be renovated back into a railway station. The basic structure has not been significantly altered, although offices have been built at what was once track level. These offices would have to be removed, and new tracks, platforms and stairs built. The areas for approach tracks are vacant land to the west and parking lots to the east, so new track could be easily installed.
GO Transit has already decided to build a new platform at the James St site for all day GO train service between Toronto and Hamilton, rather than use the Hamilton GO Centre and rebuild the Hunter Street Tunnel (This new platform will not be connected to the former station). As well, Via trains between Toronto and Niagara Falls & New York pass this spot, and at one point Via was considering using the proposed GO platform as a Hamilton stop.
One major problem is that there are no direct connections between the CPR lines in Hamilton and LIUNA station. However, there is a solution
The Dundurn Tunnel
First proposed 80 years ago as part of the failed Hamilton Union station project, this large double tracked tunnel would cross underneath York Blvd just northwest of Dundurn Castle, allowing trains heading west out of the James Street station to turn south onto the CPR tracks next to Hwy 403.
In order to reach the CP line running through downtown Hamilton, the Hunter Street Tunnel would also have to be rebuilt, but only double tracked, which would be much cheaper than triple tracking.
Hamilton GO Centre
Because of the high costs and lengthy construction required to upgrade the Hamilton GO Centre, this article recommends that LIUNA station be purchased and converted back into a functioning railway station to act as the hub for a Hamilton-centered commuter rail network, and that GO transit and Via Rail be invited to use the facility.
The network described below lists the railway line in the order that they should be completed, with the first one (as well as the second if possible) opening with the rebuilt LIUNA station (renamed James St Station)
View Hamilton Commuter Rail in a larger map
The Blue Line runs parallel to the shoreline of Lake Ontario and the QEW, through Hamilton and up the escarpment into Flamborough. At first, there would be eight stations on the line;
Future stations could be located at York Rd, Flamboro Centre and Carlisle, if development continues in the area.
The Orange line connects northeastern Burlington to Hamilton, with a total of five stations;
Riders would be able to connect to GO trains at James Street station and Aldershot station. Burlington GO station is located to the east of the split between the Orange line and GO Transit’s Lakeshore line. As a result the two systems cannot use the same set of platforms, but they can share the parking lot to the south of Plains Rd.
With the completion of work on the Dundurn and Hunter Street tunnels, the third & fourth lines in the network can enter service.
The Black line follows the CP Rail mainline from Stoney Creek through downtown Hamilton, through the Hunter Street and the Dundurn Tunnels to James St, with the following stations;
This line could actually be put into operation before the tunnels are complete, running between Stoney Creek and Hamilton, with no direct connection with the other commuter lines. It is likely that most of the riders on this line will get off in downtown Hamilton anyway.
The fourth and last line is a reconstruction of CP Rail’s line from Hamilton to Brantford, now in use as a bike trail. This line provides service to the western part of Hamilton, and connects the city with Brantford.
One problem with the CP Rail line is that the reason it was abandoned was that a large portion of the track slid into the Grand River during a landslide. The cost of stabilizing the ground and rebuilding the tracks was considered too high, and the line was abandoned. However, there is an alternative. Just to the north of the slide site, near Cainsville, the line passed underneath the Canadian National’s (now Southern Ontario’s) Hagersville subdivision. If a connection could be made between the rebuilt Hamilton-Brantford line and the Southern Ontario Railway near Cainsville, then the commuter line would bypass the site of the landslide completely. This idea has the additional benefit that trains running on the Southern Ontario Railway would be able to use Via Rail’s Brantford station.
In a previous version of this article I suggested the use of vehicles similar to those used by Ottawa’s O-Train. Since then I’ve been informed that these vehicles are not built with enough internal support to survive a collision with a freight train, and so cannot operate on railway lines with freight traffic (Ottawa gets around this by allowing freight operations on its line only at night, when the O-Train has been shut down).
The Hamilton commuter network will therefore have to use either much heavier self-propelled railcars such as the RDC, or use passenger cars pulled by locomotives. I would suggest that the Blue Line operate with (leased) diesel locomotives to start with, with a later conversion to electrical locomotives. Should the commuter network be popular enough to get off of the ground, then the remaining lines should start off as electrical ones. As GO Transit is planning to electrify their Lakeshore line in the near future, the Hamilton system should be built to the same electrical specifications, to simplify operations and allow for the use of the same overhead wires, especially for the Orange line and the area around James St Station.
In the beginning most of this network will be like GO Transit, as in rush hour only, Hamilton-bound in the morning and outbound in the evening. The exception to this will be the Black Line which will operate all day due to the high density of the neighbourhoods that it runs through.
Name of the System
One question that I was often asked regarding the previous version of this article was “What should this network be called?” Naming things is something I've never been good at. There are people on the net who are a lot more creative than I am, and someone will come up with a better name than I ever could. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you've got a good idea, and I'll post some of them.