Electrified rail transit in Ontario: an idea whose time has come

The Ontario Liberal government recently released a pledge to convert, within a decade, major portions of the GO Train network from diesel to electric power. This is an excellent idea, and I hope that it is actually implemented. If it is, it could reduce—dramatically—the carbon footprint of rail transportation. But only if the electricity that powers it remains as clean as it is now.

Right now, a kilowatt-hour of Ontario grid electricity comes with less than 50 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is called the CO2 Intensity per Kilowatt-hour (CIPK) of grid electricity. Ontario’s CIPK changes hour by hour, depending on what kinds of generators are providing how much power. See Table 1 in the left hand sidebar for the last hour’s CIPK.

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”What is the Grid CIPK, and how is it calculated?”]CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. The Grid CIPK is a measure of the carbon dioxide content of a kilowatt hour of electric power from the grid.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table 1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at www.ieso.ca), and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!


How does Ontario’s CIPK of grid electricity compare with that of other jurisdictions? It is, at this moment, about about the same as that of France (hat tip to Rick Maltese for forwarding the excellent web resource showing France’s grid CIPK in real time).

It is far lower than those of Germany, Denmark, Spain, the UK, Italy. Here are those jurisdictions’ CIPKs as average values in 2010 (Table A):

TABLE A: Electric power CIPK of selected jurisdictions, 2010

JurisdictionCIPK, grams
United Kingdom470

Sources: Non-Ontrio CIPKs from “EIA CO2 emissions from fuel combustion,” p. 111;
Ontario estimate from IESO and EmissionTrak™

As you can see, Ontario’s 113 grams in 2010, which were far higher than today’s roughly 50, still put it well in the bottom five in this list. The top five CIPKs—those of the UK, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Spain—were all well more than double that of Ontario.

This means that electrified train travel is far cleaner in Ontario (and even more so in France, Sweden, and Switzerland) than it is in the five jurisdictions with the highest CIPKs.

In fact, in an article in early December 2013, I tried to quantify the CO2 footprint per passenger-kilometer of electric versus diesel rail travel. I used data published in a study from the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) in the UK, which estimated the CO2 per passenger-kilometer of electric rail to be 54 grams.

The rail-specific data in the ATOC study was from 2005 – 2006. The CIPK of UK grid electricity in 2005 and 2006 was, according to the International Energy Agency, 491 and 515 grams respectively (see the publication cited in the table above). I took the mid-point between them, which is 503. If the carbon footprint of electric rail travel was 54 grams per passenger-kilometer in a grid with a CIPK of 503 grams, then I reasoned that it would be less than 17 percent of that on a grid with a CIPK that is less than 83 grams (which I estimate Ontario’s was in 2013). That works out to a CO2 footprint per passenger-kilometer of Ontario electric rail transportation of around 8.8 grams (17 percent of the UK’s 54 grams).

Using the UK’s 54 grams per passenger-kilometer and 503-gram 2005 – 2006 CIPK as a benchmark, we can make some predictions of the CO2 footprint of electric rail transport in Ontario.

If the current annual 82 gram CIPK of Ontario grid power holds, then each passenger riding the electric GO Train will have a CO2 footprint of 8.8 grams per kilometer.

But the current annual 82 gram CIPK of Ontario grid power will not hold. It is going to increase, beginning early next year. It is going to increase to at least twice the 2013 level.

That is because Ontario’s nuclear generating fleet capacity will decline, from the roughly 12,730 megawatts that it is now, to around 8,030 by 2020. By that date, the Pickering nuclear station—3,090 MW of capacity—will be out of service. At least one Darlington unit, 860 MW, and at least one Bruce B unit, 750 MW, will be undergoing refurbishment, for the foreseeable future. That adds up to only 8,030 MW of nuclear capacity. (12,730 – 3,090 – 860 – 750 = 8,030.)

What does this mean? It means that natural gas-fired generators, which emit upwards of half a kilogram of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour they put into a grid, will pick up the lion’s share of the slack.

Table B gives a comparison of the grid mix in 2013, versus what we can expect in 2020. Wind output in 2020 has increased by 50 percent, and gas has picked up the rest of the nuclear shortfall. Total kilowatt-hours are the same. Suspending credulity on that assumption, here is how it looks:

TABLE B: Ontario grid output by fuel, 2013 and 2020, billion kWh

Fuel2013 (12,730 MW nuclear)2020 (8,030 MW nuclear)
CO2, million tons12.4624.49
CIPK, grams82.10161.39

Source: estimates from IESO, utilizing EmissionTrak™ emission counting method

As you can see, the CO2 emissions in 2020 will have at least doubled; (bear in mind I show only the CO2 from gas-fired generation). That means our grid power CIPK will have also at least doubled.

This means the CO2 footprint per passenger-kilometer of electric rail transport in Ontario will have also nearly doubled from what it would be now.

All those millions of tons of extra CO2, just because we think today that our electrical load will not increase between now and 2020.

Well, I can think of one source of load growth. That is the electrified GO Train. And another: the additional lines on the Toronto subway. And a third: Ottawa’s electric light rail line, scheduled to come into service in 2018.

We need to put new nuclear back into our long term energy plan.

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9 years ago

And isn’t Canada maintaining a policy of rapid population growth through immigration?

If Ontario was aiming at a large and steady reduction in both carbon emissions and air pollution, one of elements of the policy would be electric vehicles.  Those would represent another source of demand growth, requiring (preferably carbon-free) generation to serve it.

9 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

“And isn’t Canada maintaining a policy of rapid population growth through immigration?”

No. I would have thought this meme would be gone by now, but here it is again. Some light reading for you:


9 years ago

“What does this mean? It means that natural gas-fired generators, which emit upwards of half a kilogram of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour they put into a grid, will pick up the lion’s share of the slack.”

So that’s one half of the story.

The other half is that, due to basic physics, that’s still half the amount of CO2 that would be emitted by burning the same fuel in the train itself. So even if we ran the generators on diesel, we’d still be better off.


Actually it’s not quite that perfect a comparison. Much of the efficiency gains in an electric car are due to the start/stop cycle, which is reduced in the case of a train. The GO Lakeshore East route has 10 stops on the route, which is probably half what you’d get if you drove the 401/DVP to the same area.

Sadly there’s no brake recovery system in any of the train sets I’m aware of. I know Bombardier did some experiments with super caps, but that was on trams and I don’t know if anyone ever actually put them into service. In the case of a GO train set, I suspect this power would best be used for the HEP systems, which currently run on diesel backup sets.

In any event, the real reason for electrification in this case is higher acceleration. The lines are already at capacity. They’ve recently extended the platform lengths from 10 to 12 cars, but another expansion isn’t possible. That leaves headway improvements and acceleration as the next two possibilities.


Headway improvements are the real solution. Not only would that increase route capacity, but it would also add additional convenience. I think everyone would rather have a train every 15 minutes than one larger one every 30. However, this would require them to upgrade the entire signal network, and I think they’re allergic to that solution. That’s a bit odd, when you consider that the obvious solution to the signal problem is SELTrac, invented and first installed right here in Ontario.

Philip nasadowski
9 years ago

Amtrak’s new electric locomotives, along with the current fleet of electrics at NJ Transit, do energy recovery during braking – in fact, they do not even have braking resistors like older electrics and all diesels have. The power gets routed to the HEP, and also returned via the catenary.

This system is common, proven, and in wide use in electric trains worldwide.

9 years ago

Sadly the Cities Sprinter does recovery into the feed line, which depends on their being someone else to accept the energy. This is not always the case, and the actual recovery percentage tends to be small. The same is true for the ALP-46 you’re referring to.

In comparison, the Bombardier experiments had banks of Maxwell super caps on the roof. These could accept something like 95% of the braking energy, although due to the physics of generation the total energy stored was maybe 50 to 60% (generation becomes less efficient at lower RPM as the vehicle slows). There were several major advantages to this:

1) much better power recovery
2) enough emergency power to pull the vehicle past intersections in the case of a power failure
3) enough power to run the aircon for extended periods.

But, as I mentioned, I don’t think anyone put them into production.

James Greenidge
9 years ago

Thanks for those hard-won stats, Steve! My one regret is that the government and other agencies don’t enlighten the public enough on them! As I’ve much witnessed on TV, I wager that the majority of Ontarioians beleive that their trains are mostly (if not all) powered by Niagara Falls instead of nuclear power.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Morgan Brown
9 years ago


Are you saying that the Ontario public thinks their trains would be like Calgary’s C-train, which claims to be run 100% by “green power”? The trains are connected to the grid as normal, but the equivalent amount of electricity is purchased from industrial wind plants.

I’d be really impressed if the C-train was actually run by a dedicated electrical supply that was powered entirely by renewables.

Morgan Brown
9 years ago


Another source of electrical load growth is (potentially) that of electric cars/buses. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car#Running_costs I see 28 to 44 kWh/100 miles (17 to 27 kWh/100 km). I doubt that covers the car heating requirements.

Suppose Ontario had 200,000 all-electric vehicles by 2020. (The World Wildlife Fund wants to see 600,000 in Canada by 2020, and Ont = ~1/3 the population. There were 4738 electric highway cars sold in Canada in 2011-2013). Each is assumed to do 50 km per workday (for 200 days/year). Assume an average of 22 kWh/100 km. That’s an additional annual electrical load of:

50 km/day/vehicle x 200 days x 200,000 vehicles x 22 kWh / 100 km = 440,000 MWh per year, equivalent to ~7% of the output of one Darlington reactor (80% capacity factor). At least these cars could charge at night. 440,000 MWh is approximately 0.3% of current Ont production (150 TWh/year).

9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

When the EV needs to charge is strongly affected by the size of its battery.  In addition to an overnight charge, a PHEV may need to be charged one or more times during the day to be able to operate petroleum-free.  An EV like the Leaf would seldom need daytime charging unless used for very long commutes.

This affects the peak grid load.  People charging after work, while shopping or eating out, will add to the evening demand peak.  The co-op nearest me defines its peak load period as 5 PM to 10 PM weekdays, or roughly the time that parking lot lights are on and people are making dinner or eating out.  How to fix this?  Can e.g. a grill or a fryer operate from a “heat battery” that is charged overnight, freeing power for time-critical needs?

OT:  Steve, I notice large increments between comment numbers in what seem to be the active threads.  Am I missing discussion, or do you have spammers hitting your old threads?  Can you put in a widget that lists recent comments?