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“You have to be an optimist in this business,” says Michael Schabas over lunch at Miku in downtown Toronto. “If you’re not, you fail.” He picks at the sushi in front of him as he recalls riding the subway alone as a 10-year-old in 1966. “I got up and went down with a friend at 5am. I was fascinated by how it made the city work.” For Schabas, a leading global railway developer and consultant, that fascination is still strong after 30 or so years of working on rail projects, from Vancouver’s driverless Skytrain railway line to Nigeria’s first mass-transit rail network (which is currently under construction).

Educated at the University of Toronto and Harvard, he is a respected voice in the field of rail-infrastructure development. From early work on Honolulu’s light-rail network (now being built after decades of political wrangling) to current projects in the UK, Germany and California, at heart he is a commuter: “I try to use public transport in every city. Every time I ride it, I learn something. I have worked on so many types of railways: light rail, automated metros, subways, commuter rail, high speed and even freight railways. In the train business I’ve learned there are no standard answers.”

The opportunities – and pitfalls – for rail transport in his home town of Toronto now preoccupy Schabas. It’s here that boutique consultancy First Class Partnerships, of which he is a director, is advising on the ca$13.5bn (€9.1bn) electrification of Go Transit, the region’s commuter network. “Toronto’s going from being a really nice place to be – ‘a city that works’ is how it was described in the 1960s – to being one of the top 10 world cities. But to do that it needs to do more with its transport.”

When the first of Toronto’s two subway lines opened in 1954, its underground rail network was the envy of urban developers across North America. It was one of the first underground lines to be built in a city that was already dependent on cars. Railways in cities in Europe and the US largely pre-dated car use, so developers were intrigued to see how Toronto’s two subway lines would shift the travel habits of the city’s residents.

“The quality of experience in the 1960s was far higher than, say, on the New York subway,” says Schabas. “I think it was the mayor of Bogotá who said that a successful city is not one where the poor have cars but where the rich ride on public transport. And, at least in the 1960s and 1970s, the ttc [Toronto Transit Commission, the city’s public transport network] was seen as a system that rich people rode.”

The city’s subway also sets standards for connections to the bus and tram networks above ground, says Schabas. “The older parts of the Toronto subway are among the best integrated in the world. There are 11 stations in the downtown loop that connect to shopping centres and office buildings. There are 200,000 people who work in downtown Toronto who basically don’t have to go outside to get the subway or the commuter train at Union Station. There are very few places in the world like that.” This is, of course, all very useful in snowy winters.

The problem in Toronto is that the original vision for connecting the city hasn’t kept up with the population growth, nor with the rise of neighbourhoods that weren’t incorporated into the original designs. “It’s not that it’s got worse, it’s more that it hasn’t become much better,” says Schabas.

He adds that cities are held back by the reticence of political leaders to engage imaginatively with evolving transport needs. Political and social agendas for transport reform can often rely on unhelpful assumptions: expanding a subway to a lower-income part of town when light-rail or a boosted bus offering might be more efficient, for example. “There’s often an assumption that public transport is not meant to make money,” he says. “But if you have expensive and inefficient working practices, you ultimately don’t achieve the ridership you’re aiming for. The trains will run less frequently, it becomes more expensive, you’ll need bigger subsidies in the future and you’ll get to build less of it.”

The plan to extend the subway to Scarborough, a city-region to the east, is a classic example of politics jarring with a meaningful solution to expanding the rail offering. “If you ask someone in Scarborough who’s in favour of it, I think they have this idea of a staircase five minutes down the street and 10 minutes later they’ll be downtown,” says Schabas. “But in reality you’ll be taking a bus for half an hour, getting on a train that will make 16 stops before you get to Toronto, then another six stops before you get there. I don’t think that’s an attractive offer.”

Schabas himself has proposed an extension to existing light rail between Toronto and Scarborough, akin to his work on London’s Docklands Light Railway (dlr), as a more efficient solution. It’s a plan that has found little political favour locally. Schabas also cites privately led projects – currently underway in Florida and Boston – that are welcome counters to government gridlock on transport policy. “It’s a very slow process,” he says of updating a busy transport network in a major city. “It can be like doing open-heart surgery while the patient is running a marathon.”

But there are signs, in Canada at least, that political minds are opening. Earlier this year, Schabas published a report on behalf of the Ontario government assessing the viability of a high-speed rail link between Toronto, Kitchener (a major university town) and Waterloo (a burgeoning technology centre). The line would be the first high-speed rail service in Canada, would cost between ca$3bn and ca$4bn (€2bn to €2.6bn) and would remove 20 per cent of car traffic. “There are schemes that didn’t make sense 50 years ago that make sense now,” says Schabas.

“I like to say I’m realistic,” he adds later, glancing from his office window at the Go trains being readied for the end-of-day commuter rush. “You can’t get refunds in the rail business so the mistakes live with you forever.”

Michael Schabas’s top five global benchmarks

  1. Vancouver Skytrain, Canada
    “Politicians had the courage to build the world’s first driverless elevated railway, with trains every minute and spectacular views in the world’s most beautiful city.”

  2. Zürich S-Bahn, Switzerland
    “Slick technology, comfortable double-deck trains and seamless integration with trams and intercity trains, all threaded into a dense, historic city.”

  3. Deutsche Bahn’s Intercity Express, Germany
    “Unbeatable for clean design, comfortable seats and efficient on-board service, on a network of (mostly) hourly trains linking all of Germany’s major cities.”

  4. Indian Pacific railway, Australia
    “The Australian government would have shut it down in 1999 if we had not come up with a strategy for turning it from a perennial loss-maker into a profitable business.”

  5. London Overground, UK
    “It transformed several old and unloved railway lines into a busy and heavily used network around the city.”

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