A need for high-speed rail reality (Updated)

IMG_6258-001VIA Rail train at Brampton Station, on the Toronto-Kitchener rail corridor

Updated Friday May 19, 2017:

Today, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the commencement of an Environmental Assessment on bringing high-speed rail to Southwestern Ontario, connecting Toronto and Pearson Airport with Guelph, Kitchener, and London, with Phase II continuing to Windsor, with a potential stop in Chatham.

Former federal Transport Minister David Collenette was assigned to write a report on building the corridor; it is now public on the Ministry of Transportation’s website. It proposes operating speeds up to 250 km/h, making it a true high speed line (though slower than many lines in Europe and East Asia, which have cruising speeds between 270 and 320 km/h). The estimated cost of the project is estimated to be $21-billion, reducing travel times from Toronto to Windsor to a mere two hours.

figure-es-2-proposed-future-southwestern-ontario-passenger-rail-network.jpgProposed High Speed Rail system for Southwestern Ontario

An option for a 300 km/h HSR service was studied, but found to be even more expensive, requiring more dedicated tracks. The 250 km/h option will allow it to use the existing Toronto-London and London-Windsor corridors.

For southwestern Ontario, high speed rail could be a boon. Kitchener-Waterloo is a major educational and technological hub; faster and more frequent rail service will benefit university students, tech workers, and other commuters, perhaps those priced out of the Toronto housing market. London’s economy has taken some hits in recent years, so bringing it within commuting distance to Toronto and K-W gives residents there more options.

Between Toronto and Kitchener, the report assumes two off-peak HSR trains an hour, and one GO train every hour, making local stops. It also assumes that GO RER service will continue to terminate at Bramalea, a poor location to terminate regional rail services; Downtown Brampton is one stop away. Building the “missing link” along Highway 407 will allow many more trains to pass through Downtown Brampton, which would allow for local RER trains to be extended to west Brampton, at Mount Pleasant GO. It would be a shame if the HSR plans (which, in principle, I support) pushed aside regional and local needs.

Statford and St. Marys, which are only served by VIA trains (and no intercity coach service) will also have to be considered, as they will be bypassed by HSR. As well, towns and cities elsewhere in southwest Ontario, such as Simcoe, Tillsonburg, Wallaceburg, and St. Thomas, have no bus or rail access. For less than the $15 million pledged for the HSR EA, the province could fund several years’ worth of basic intercity bus service to connect these communities together.

Unless assumptions change, Brampton residents will see twice as many trains speed by their downtown core than stop, which I think is unfortunate. In the original post below, I was worried that high speed rail dreams would distract from more immediate needs. I’m now afraid that I was right.


Original post dated April 26, 2017

When have I heard this one before?

According to CTV News, the provincial government is looking to build a new high-speed rail line between Toronto, Kitchener, and London. The new plan, to be announced next month, is based on the work of former federal Transport Minister David Collenette.

During his time as Transport Minister under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Collenette backed incremental VIA Rail improvements, as well as VIA-FAST, a higher-speed train service between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Those proposed improvements were cancelled when Paul Martin became prime minister; currently VIA is pushing for a revised version of that previous plan. Collenette also pushed hard for a rail link between Toronto Pearson International Airport and Union Station, a fundamentally flawed proposal known as “Blue 22.” That airport rail link proposal was later relaunched as a provincial project and opened as UP Express in 2015.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca was not especially clear about the plans for such as high-speed rail service, saying “…there are multiple definitions for high-speed rail depending on what you’re looking at.” Del Duca cited “geographical limitations,” while hoping that the federal government would contribute funds towards the project.

Interestingly, only a week ago, Deputy Minister Deb Matthews (and London MPP) was downplaying the province’s plans, saying the province only promised to study, but not necessarily build, the high-speed rail corridor.

I worry that high-speed rail is a distraction. In Canada, we have an abysmal record of proposing high-speed rail projects, but never following through. Even VIA’s less ambitious plan for dedicated tracks and new equipment to provide more frequent and reliable service, with somewhat faster travel times, is not yet secure.

There is already a Toronto-Kitchener-London service; two VIA trains operate daily in each direction along the entire route, while GO Transit operates more frequent weekday trains to Brampton and four weekday round trips to Kitchener. Before the 1990 Brian Mulroney-era VIA cuts, there were five round trips on this line. In the 1980s, the fastest VIA train between Toronto, Kitchener, and London took 3 hours, 2 minutes; today, the fastest train is 3 hours, 22 minutes.

This Rick Mercer Report video will never get old

All that I want for the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor in the short-to-medium term is the same as what VIA is proposing between Toronto and Montreal:

  • Dedicated tracks. On the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, this means building a new rail corridor, known as “The Missing Link” for freight trains between Halwest (near Bramalea GO Station) and Milton. This new route would divert Canadian National (CN) freight trains that currently pass through Brampton and Georgetown on the Toronto-Chicago mainline. Potentially, Canadian Pacific (CP) trains passing through Toronto and Mississauga could also be diverted, freeing up capacity on GO Transit’s Milton Line. CN freight traffic limits the frequency and speed of GO Transit rail service to Brampton and Kitchener; moving the through freight trains would allow for frequent, electrified, GO RER service beyond Bramalea, as currently proposed. CN is interested in partnering with the province to build this link; CP has not expressed interest.Ibi Missing Link map.jpg
    Map of the “Missing Link” from a 2015 IBI Group report
  • Rail improvements. Between Georgetown and Kitchener, the railway is owned by Metrolinx, and hosts four weekday GO Transit trains in each direction, two daily VIA trains in each direction, and several Goderich-Exeter Railway (GEXR) freight trains. Track is in good shape, but has several slow sections, including a two-kilometre section west of Guelph Central Station where trains crawl at 10 miles an hour (16 km/h).
    Improving rail speeds in central Guelph will be expensive, especially where the railway runs in the middle of residential Kent Street, but it will be worth it.Beyond Kitchener, the track is leased and maintained by GEXR, which has allowed the rails to deteriorate. Slow speeds are acceptable by a no-frills short line freight operator, determined to minimize maintenance costs, but not so for passenger rail. VIA trains are consistently late because of the condition of track, especially between Stratford and London. Purchasing the track, installing welded rail, and improving grade crossings will substantially improve reliability and speeds on this corridor.Incremental improvements, such as grade separations, improved signalling, and new passing tracks, would permit frequent, reliable, and faster rail service.
  • A new train fleet. Via Rail’s coaches are nearing the end of their useful lives; among the rolling stock used on the Toronto-Kitchener-London service are HEP-I and HEP-II coaches built in the 1950s and refurbished several times since. GO Transit’s commuter coaches are acceptable for shorter trips, but are uncomfortable for long-distance travel. With the completion of the “Missing Link” and the acquisition of the Kitchener-London rails, it would be possible to electrify the entire corridor. Electric trains benefit from faster acceleration times, especially electric multiple units.

Some of these improvements can be started within the next year, before the 2018 provincial election. If the province wants to show that it’s serious about providing effective rail service to Kitchener and London, there’s no need for another high-speed rail study. Simply continue the work on the “Missing Link,” plan for GO RER to continue west of Bramalea GO, improve the existing rail infrastructure, and acquire the optimal fleet for medium-distance rail services. Once that is complete, planning for even higher speeds, possibly with a new purpose-built alignment, should begin.

Canadians have been teased with high-speed rail proposals that never get anywhere, meanwhile existing rail infrastructure is neglected and intercity services are cut. It’s time to get moving with a sensible plan that can start right now.

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GO Transit’s 404 Error?

IMG_8969-001GO Train at Gormley Station

Previously on this blog, I wrote about how new public institutions like hospitals and university campuses are built in isolated, auto-dependent areas without regard to provincial land use policies. In St. Catharines, a new modern hospital on the city’s western outskirts replaced two urban sites, despite available opportunities that would be more accessible to at-need populations. In Orillia, Lakehead University built its campus on the edge of that small city, far from other institutions or its charming downtown core. Similar decisions are being made for new hospitals and university campuses in Niagara Falls, Windsor, and Milton.

But Metrolinx and GO Transit, its regional transit subsidiary, often fail too to meet the provincial goals of intensification of urban centres and major transit nodes, containing urban sprawl, and promoting sustainable transportation. In Downtown Brampton, an anchor mobility hub, Metrolinx plans to build a new surface parking lot — demolishing several houses and two office buildings in the process — to satisfy commuters’ demands for free parking.

This failure is especially evident on the newly extended Richmond Hill Line, where one new station — Gormley — opened late last year, and another — Bloomington — is now under construction. Both stations do not support any evident land use policy (both are located on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine); they continue GO Transit’s heritage of building stations that serve car owners, but remain largely inaccessible to pedestrians, cyclists, or local transit users.

I recently took the train north to Gormley to inform my critique of GO Transit’s new stations. I came away even more disappointed than I had expected.

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A new low for the Scarborough Subway champion

Note: a version of this article has been cross-posted to Spacing Toronto

For 2016’s annual Torontoist Heroes and Villains feature, I nominated Toronto Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) as villain of the year. (“Pedestrian blaming” won that dubious honour.) But I remain proud of my choice. As I wrote back in December:

De Baeremaeker’s record of environmentalism has been overshadowed by an increasingly antagonistic tone, pitting supposedly downtrodden Scarborough against the rest of the city in his one-track quest to build a one-stop subway extension to his ward. In his myopic support of the subway, De Baeremaeker is opportunistic and vindictive, takes the low road, insults critics who engage in good faith debates, and in the process does a disservice to the community he represents.

Councillor De Baeremaeker hasn’t changed his tone.

Yesterday, May 10, the City of Toronto held a public consultation at Scarborough Civic Centre on the next phase of planning for that one-stop, 6.2-kilometre subway extension, which is estimated to cost $3.35 billion, and open no earlier than 2026.

I wish I was able to attend last night’s meeting, as disgruntled Scarborough residents questioned the merits of that transit plan. And Councillor De Baeremaeker shamelessly blamed “downtown councillors” for the shortcomings of that one-stop subway. For a councillor who is rightly proud of his past environmental advocacy, it was surely a low point.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro, an excellent local journalist, covered the meeting. 

City Scarborough MapCity of Toronto map from February 2016 illustrating current plans for the Scarborough Subway and connecting transit.

At the public consultation, TTC and City planning staff answered queries from members of the public, many questioning the utility of the single-stop subway. There are no additional funds to rough in future stations, such as at McCowan Road and Lawrence Avenue, where the line would intersect the busy 54 Lawrence East bus and serve Scarborough General Hospital. As building future stations later would require an extended shut-down of the line, the one-stop subway extension will likely be forever a one-stop subway.

(The eastern extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus is also part of the new plan for Scarborough, but the LRT component is unfunded.)

Shameless as ever, Councillor De Baeremaeker resorted to strawman arguments, talking up a “suburban/urban divide”:

[De Baeremaeker] blamed “downtown councillors,” who represent the most densely populated wards in the city, for not wanting to fund more frequent transit stops like their residents enjoy.

Yes, it is true that all councillors representing central Toronto opposed the subway extension, but so did several suburban politicians, most notably Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 – Scarborough East). Yet not one of those councillors wanted less transit for Scarborough. Instead, they backed a seven-stop LRT replacement for the ageing Scarborough rapid transit line, including an extension to Centennial College and Sheppard Avenue in Malvern. That less-expensive line was fully funded by the provincial government, which would have permitted scarce funds to be spent on other transit projects across Toronto.

Meanwhile Mayor John Tory was most interested in pushing SmartTrack, a fantasy rail project that got pared down as parts of the line were found to be impossible to build, and costs increased. The eastern end of SmartTrack conflicted with the Scarborough Subway extension. The three-stop subway plan was cut to a single stop at Scarborough Centre, to keep costs down and to not cannibalize SmartTrack.

Yet Tory and De Baeremaeker are allies on the subway extension; Tory named him one of his Deputy Mayors to champion the line. But Tory’s push for his own project put him at odds with De Baeremaeker’s focus on the subway extension, any subway extension, to his ward.

It is also worth noting that until 2012, De Baeremaeker supported Transit City, the transit plan championed by David Miller that would have delivered three new light rail lines to Scarborough.

I am not surprised by De Baeremaeker’s shameless politics. But his performance last night was especially crass and dishonest. Backed into a corner, faced with angry local residents, he lashed out at imaginary villains. But subway backers largely have themselves to blame; despite winning every recent vote on the subway plan, they have only one stop to show for it.

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Ontario’s land use scandal: Another greenfield hospital for Niagara

IMG_8728 (2)-001

Recently, I discussed the greenfield locations of new hospital and post-secondary institutions in Ontario, focusing on the new St. Catharines Hospital site and the Orillia campus of Lakehead University, but also mentioning the proposed sites of a new hospital for Windsor, and an university campus in Milton. Hospitals and educational institutions are primarily funded by the province, which likes to promote sustainable development policies such as the Greenbelt, and mobility hubs at major transit nodes.

The trouble with these new sites, located far from each city’s urban centre, is that they are difficult to reach by walking, cycling, or public transit. They don’t support downtown businesses, they ignore other potential urban land parcels (often former industrial sites), and are not in accordance with the province’s own land use policies.

I recently returned to Niagara Region to examine Niagara Health’s plan to consolidate health services outside of St. Catharines (where it already merged two urban hospital sites to a single suburban location). It proposes consolidating most health services located in five municipalities (Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne, Fort Erie, and Niagara-on-the-Lake) into one site, at the corner of Biggar and Montrose Roads, south of Niagara Falls’ urban area, but adjacent to an interchange with the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).

Niagara Falls, like most of urbanized Niagara Region, is de-industrializing, with modest population growth. Employment is largely dependent on public sector jobs, such as the education and health services, and the city’s tourism industry. As a large employer, the hospital should be as accessible to its employees, as well as its patients, as possible.


Map of current Niagara Health sites and proposed new hospital

The proposed hospital site is at the corner of two two-lane country roads, in an area without sidewalks. To the north and west is a golf course; to the south is a Hungarian community hall, farm fields, and a few exurban ranch houses. The land was donated in 2013 by a local business family, but last fall, Niagara Falls City Council was considering purchasing an additional 20 acres for staff parking. Continue reading

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Cycling the Greater Golden Horseshoe

IMG_4179You never know who you might meet when you ride through Toronto’s ravines

Spring is here!

One of my favourite things to do is go for a ride, either within town, or on a day trip or an overnight excursion. Toronto’s ravines are a treat; and the further away from Lake Ontario you get, the quieter the trails are.

Two years ago, I was riding up the Humber River Trail north of Highway 401 when I saw a deer wandering down the path. I stopped, and the deer passed by, within metres of where I was standing. Not much further north, I saw two deer — a fawn and its mother — fording the Humber. Tommy Thompson Park, better known as the Leslie Street Spit, is another favourite place to go. The Spit was created from clean landfill to create a new outer harbour in anticipation for St. Lawrence Seaway shipping that never came. Instead, it has become an important migratory bird sanctuary. The views of Downtown Toronto are great, and there are no ferry lines to wait in.

For longer distances, GO Transit is especially helpful. All of their buses are equipped with bike racks and their train (outside of rush hour, of course) can handle over 25 bicycles each. (The seasonal Niagara trains have dedicated bike coaches as well.) GO Transit can get you out of the city for more rural rides, or for longer one-way rides to or from Toronto.

At least twice a year, I ride out to Hamilton on the Waterfront Trail, opting to enter that city by going around Burlington Bay and taking Cannon Street in from the east. It’s an 85 kilometre trip that takes the better part of the day. I’ll have dinner and drinks at one of the many Downtown Hamilton establishments before loading my bike on the bus at the Hamilton GO Centre. Other times, I have used GO Transit to get out to rail trails in Peterborough, Uxbridge, Guelph, or Barrie.

I prefer rail trails as they’re more relaxed than rural roads or highways; I’m not able to keep up with roadies, and I’m okay with that. Rail trails are flat, but they’re also usually unpaved, and some sections are very quiet. (I have gone 20 or 30 minutes without meeting another trail user in some rural areas.)

Here is a summary of some of my favourite long-distance rides.

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Exploring Earl Bales Park

IMG_8535-001View from the top of the ski hill at Earl Bales Park

Last Sunday afternoon, I went for a walk around Earl Bales Park. The large, multiuse green space is located near the corner of Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue in North York; it also descends into the West Don Ravine. It was a delight to explore this park, but as I discuss below, it could be much better connected to the city on the south end.

Earl Bales Park originally was a farm established in 1824 by English settler John Bales and his family; their house still stands in situ. The land later became a private golf course, and was purchased by the Borough of North York in 1975, named for one of the Baleses’ great-grandsons.

A lot is packed into this popular green space: walking trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, a community centre, an amphitheatre, an off-leash dog park, a memorial, a seniors’ woodworking shop, and even a ski hill. Even on the first weekend of April, the park was full of picnicking families and groups; families represented a diverse cross-section of suburban Toronto.

After English, the most commonly spoken languages I heard were Russian and Tagalog — the Bathurst Street corridor north of Highway 401 is popular among immigrants from the Philippines and Eastern Europe; many businesses and community organizations in the area cater to these communities.

IMG_8530-001Picnicking at Earl Bales Park, April 2, 2017
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A check-up on Downtown Barrie

IMG_8357-001
“Spirit Catcher” by Ron Baird on Downtown Barrie’s Waterfront

Last weekend, I made a trip up to Barrie on GO Transit. Most people in the Greater Toronto Area know of Barrie as a place you pass on Highway 400 on the way north to Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, or Muskoka, but it has a population of 140,000 people, many of them commuters to the Greater Toronto Area.

Barrie features a lovely waterfront, situated at the end of Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay. After the abandonment of the Canadian National Railway tracks north of Allandale Station in 1997, a new waterfront trail was created and Lakeshore Drive moved inland to provide more park space. The waterfront trail connects on the north with a rail trail that extends to Orillia. The waterfront has three swimming areas, a marine, food concessions, playgrounds, and gardens. On a warm Sunday in March, the boardwalk and waterfront paths were very well used. Work is being completed on further enhancements to the public realm.

IMG_8386-001A busy March Sunday on Barrie’s waterfront

In 2012, GO Transit extended the Barrie line to Allandale Waterfront Station, at the closest point possible to Downtown Barrie where tracks remained. The old Allandale Station, built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1905 and abandoned by CN in the 1980s, still stands just north of the GO station, newly restored. Yet the station is fenced off and is awaiting re-use.

IMG_8372-001.JPGAllandale Station is fully restored on the outside, but remains fenced off. The GO Station is to the far left.

Downtown Barrie hosts many heritage buildings. Despite a catastrophic fire in 2007, the downtown core boasts a mostly-intact inventory of heritage commercial and institutional buildings. The old Carnegie Library was incorporated into the MacLaren Art Centre (a new central library was built in the 1980s). The Queen’s Hotel on Dunlop Street, established in the 1850s, retains its historical veranda. Brampton and other county towns had similar hotels, but many were lost to fire or development.

The downtown business improvement area has been active as well. During the summer months, patios are brought out into the streets, and festivals are put on year-round. New condominium towers built along the waterfront and downtown bring new residents that can support the historic city centre.

Despite my positive impressions, one thing really bothered me: Downtown has many signs posted reminding people of a 2004 by-law prohibiting “aggressive behaviour, panhandling, loitering, and skateboarding/bicycling” with a maximum fine of $5000. Surveillance cameras are positioned at several downtown corners.

IMG_8396-002Sign reminding of Downtown Barrie’s Zero Tolerance Bylaw. The historic Queen’s Hotel is in the background.

The intent of the rule against cycling probably refers to bicycles ridden on sidewalks, rather than on roadways (there are some bicycle lock-up locations downtown and along the waterfront). That said, the signage and the by-law have the effect of telling young people and low-income residents that they are not welcome.

Signs and specific bylaws such as this are not uncommon in Ontario. In Brampton, signs in public parks and along its pathways prohibit loitering as well. Yet sidewalks and parks are public spaces; parks in particular are places where one might wish to relax, have a picnic, or just sit and enjoy nature or to people-watch.

IMG_2362-001.JPG“No loitering” in Brampton’s parks

Downtown Barrie has struggled with poverty, vacant lots, derelict properties on the periphery, as well as crime, such as assaults, and drug trafficking. Downtown Barrie has many of the support services for economically and socially marginalized people; there are affordable rental apartments and rooming houses in the core as well. Downtown has several cafes and restaurants, a few clothing and furniture stores, as well as a craft brewery, but many of the businesses along the main streets are convenience stores, hair salons, vape shops, tattoo parlours, bars, and nightclubs. Especially missing are businesses such as a drug store, and a supermarket.

To discourage loitering, benches were removed from Dunlop Street, Barrie’s main street. However, seniors in particular benefit from places to sit and rest while going on walks or doing shopping. Payphones downtown were also removed in 2013; the local councillor said that they were “degrading the quality of the neighbourhood.”

In 2014, the City of Hamilton was looking at adopting a similar by-law to discourage low-income and homeless people congregating and creating a nusiance in Downtown Hamilton. Councillor Jason Farr pointed to Downtown Barrie’s success, but noted the importance of consulting with poverty advocates to “include that social side of the argument.”

Instead of merely implementing aggressive regulations and ticketing, there’s a need for inclusive urbanism. Are there adequate recreational and social activities for youth and marginalized populations? Barrie has a skateboard/BMX park nearby, at Queen’s Park, but that might not be enough to satisfy local youth. What urban interventions would Barrie’s low income populations like to see? Sadly, I doubt they were consulted.

Barrie’s waterfront is one of Ontario’s best: accessible by transit, connected to its downtown, hosting many activities and events. As construction concludes, it should help revitalize the neighbourhoods around it. Barrie should not further push away its already marginalized populations; it should find a way to be welcoming to all.

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