Creative Commons / Flickr user Arild
       As many as 1,500 members of Toronto Local 353 could eventually work on GO Transit’s $11 billion commuter rail network upgrades.

Toronto’s GO Transit commuter rail network has committed to a shift away from reliance on diesel-powered locomotives, a push that could translate into meaningful, long-term employment for up to 1,500 members of Toronto Local 353.

“There’s been a huge investment by the federal and provincial governments in recent years to electrify our rail systems,” said Local 353 Business Manager Steven Martin. “Our members have the experience and the know-how to take on such a huge project and get it done safely and efficiently.”

Last April, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced plans for the province to invest nearly $28.5 billion on transit projects in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region covering the western shores of Lake Ontario from Toronto to Hamilton. Much of that money is geared toward construction of a new subway line through Toronto, but plenty will be left to help fund GO Transit’s $11.2 billion electrification project.

“People are looking for ways to go green and they’re also tired of sitting in traffic gridlock,” said First District International Vice President Thomas Reid. “With the IBEW’s help, Ontarians could soon be enjoying smoother and more environmentally conscious commutes.”

Nearly 71.7 million people rode GO Transit in 2018, the agency reported. Its upgrade project aims to boost ridership even higher by allowing trains powered primarily by overhead-contact electricity to run every 15 minutes each way on at least five of GO’s seven lines. It’s a major undertaking: If all of the system’s lines were laid out in a straight line, the 500 km of tracks would connect Toronto and Montréal.

Local 353’s chances of getting this work rose significantly thanks to a happy coincidence. The local’s leaders had been conducting contract talks in a Toronto hotel when representatives from U.K.-based engineering and construction firm Keltbray, on a mission to expand the company’s business to Canada, checked in to the same hotel.

“Whilst we will maintain our commitment and focus on the U.K. market, it is only sensible and prudent for us to consider markets overseas which provide a greater degree of certainty in the medium term,” Keltbray Group CEO Brendan Kerr said in a press release.

The two parties learned that they each place a strong emphasis on education, Martin said: “We brought them through one of our training centers and showed them how we’re on the leading edge when it comes to training.”

With more than 11,000 members throughout central Ontario, an ongoing commitment to education is crucial for Local 353, Martin said. Thanks to an annual investment of nearly $3 million, funded mainly through collective bargaining agreements with its numerous signatory contractors, the local operates four state-of-the-art centres — in Toronto, Barrie and Oshawa — to train apprentices and provide continuing education.

Keltbray came away impressed, Martin said, and in turn invited him, Local 353 Vice President Jeff Irons, Education Director Susan Boorman and Project Co-Ordinator Mike Rogge to tour the company’s U.K. headquarters. “It gave us a chance to see different sites and different ways of doing things, and to see how far along they are on training,” Martin said.

The business manager assured the Keltbray representatives that, should the company formalise an agreement to work in the province, the IBEW stood ready to take on any electrical work that resulted.

It wasn’t long before Keltbray had signed a business agreement with Local 353 signatory contractor Aecon, an infrastructure development company that itself was looking to get in on the coming overhead electrification upgrades. Local 353 members have worked extensively with Aecon on a number of transportation developments, including construction of the 19 km Eglinton Crosstown light-rail system, set to open in the fall of 2021, and the 11 km Finch West light-rail system opening in 2023.

“This amounts to billions of dollars’ worth of construction and maintenance,” said Martin of the GO Transit upgrades, with the potential for more work to come from maintenance and future expansions. “We’re hoping to make good hay with this.”

Local 353 also assured Keltbray that a relationship with the IBEW could help the company smooth its entrance into the Canadian market by assisting it with translating their rigorous training standards to conform with Ontario’s. “The concepts are the same, but some of the terms are different,” Martin said.

The business manager estimates that these and similar green initiatives in Ontario could hold a great deal of potential for Local 353 members.

“It’s a win-win-win — for the IBEW, for Keltbray and for the province,” Martin said.