The crosstown Eglinton light rail in Toronto is one of Canada's largest infrastructure projects and is 100% union.

In early January, two tunnel boring machines arrived to start the second phase of one of the largest infrastructure projects in Toronto history, the union-built Eglinton light rail.

It was the latest milestone for the city's light rail system, which will see the opening of the first phase, the Crosstown LRT, later this year.

The crosstown Eglinton light rail in Toronto is one of Canada's largest infrastructure projects and is 100% union.
All Photos Credit: Crosslinx Transit Solutions

When the East and West extensions finish sometime in the next decade, Toronto will have a new, midtown light rail that runs from the east end of Toronto more than 20 kilometers west into the neighboring city of Mississauga.

Like nearly all light rail systems, it is fully electric, meaning lots of work for members of Toronto Local 353.

The Eglinton West and Crosstown phases will cost around CA$16 billion and come as part of a decades-long expansion of the public transit network in the Greater Toronto Area worth nearly CA$30 billion. The master plan includes nine other light rail lines, four subway lines and nine commuter and intercity rail projects.

"All of them will be union," said Local 353 Business Manager Lee Caprio.

Caprio said up to 1,000 members of his 10,500-member local were working on the project at its peak and he expects there to be similar demand on rail expansion projects throughout the next decade.

The Crosstown phase has been underway since 2011 and, when it opens later this year, will add 18 km of track, including 10 km that will run underneath the dense midtown of central Toronto.

In addition to the track and electrified cable infrastructure, Toronto union trades workers are building 25 stations and stops, including three that connect to existing subway lines. Stations will include the latest in smart LED controls with automatic dimming based on ambient light.

"Eglinton Avenue is a major artery through the center of town. This project not only provides good jobs for union trades workers, it is linking communities that have been getting farther apart as more people move to the city and traffic gets worse and worse," Caprio said.

While the Crosstown section begins welcoming riders next year, tunnel boring is already underway for the next phase of the project, the 9.2 km Eglinton West extension and its seven stations.

The project owner, Metrolinx — formerly the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority — said it expects the western extension to be complete by 2031.

"We had 40 or more contractors on the Crosstown alone and up to 30 people at each station and I expect the number will be similar on the West extension," Caprio said.

The Toronto City Council also approved an East extension in 2016, but construction has not been scheduled for that project. Yet.

While the Eglinton project is big news and important on its own, Caprio said, these local projects are being wrapped into an even grander vision to update and upgrade Canadian rail infrastructure.

Soon, he said, eastern Canada will be interconnected with layers of high speed, intercity, commuter and light rail with no equal in North America. GO Transit, the commuter rail system, for example, said it will quadruple the number of weekly trips on the system to 6,000, although there is no timeline at present to reach that goal.

In July, the Canadian intercity rail system VIA Rail announced plans to separate passenger and freight rail lines and upgrade tracks and motors to create a new, high-speed train corridor.

"There could be another CA$30-60 billion of electrified high-speed rail from Windsor near Detroit through Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and then up and around to Barrie, Smith Falls and Ottawa," Caprio said. "This will be more like Europe with high-speed downtown-to-downtown rail unlike anything we've seen in North America. It will be a game changer."

Up to 90% of the new service would run on electricity, Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra said when he announced the plan over the intercom of a Toronto-to-Montreal train. VIA Rail said construction would begin immediately and could take up to 10 years.

Caprio said the local has already started training journeymen and apprentices on the catenary system that holds the electrical power system that the high-speed trains will use.

There will be some uniquely Canadian challenges to the project.

Unlike the densely populated urban areas of Europe, China and Japan where most high-speed rail is built, the spaces between Canadian cities are more spread out.

"We are going through rural and forest-dense areas where no man has gone before," Caprio said. "It will require field crews, communication cabling tech, ICI techs. We are talking about a monumental project."