A need for high-speed rail reality

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

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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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

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“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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Greenfield infrastructure: not so green

img_7612-001St. Catharines site, Niagara Health System

I recently visited two Ontario cities, St. Catharines and Orillia, to illustrate the problems of building new medical and educational institutions on isolated greenfield sites.

Large greenfield lands have several advantages: they’re easy and inexpensive to build on, they can accommodate large parking lots, and offer room for future expansion. But by the nature of their isolation, they’re more expensive to serve with road and water infrastructure, and more difficult to connect to transit. Students, patients, and employees must travel farther, and they don’t foster economic and social connections with the local community as well.

St. Catharines

In 2013, a new hospital campus opened in St. Catharines, replacing two smaller, run-down hospital sites just outside of the city’s downtown core. The new Niagara Health System site offers new and improved services, such as regional cancer centre, a spacious and bright dialysis unit, and a modern mental health centre. When the site opened, it was a vast improvement over the older facilities.

But there was one, major, drawback: the new hospital site is located on the far western edge of St. Catharines’ suburban sprawl, almost inaccessible without a car.


Location of current and former St. Catharines hospital sites

St. Catharines Transit re-routed a bus route (Route 1) to serve the new hospital site, but it costs the transit system nearly $400,000 a year to do so. The old General Hospital had four bus routes within walking distance to its urban location. Passengers from Thorold, Merritton, or several other neighbourhoods are required to make an additional transfer at the downtown bus terminal in order to access the new site. The distance makes taxi trips more expensive for the majority of St. Catharines residents and more difficult to get to by foot or by bike. Continue reading

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A better Hurontario Street – an LRT update

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Metrolinx light rail vehicle mock-up at Gage Park, meets a Brampton Transit Zum bus, 2013. 

Earlier this week, I visited Brampton City Hall, where at a public open house, Metrolinx and city staff provided an update of the Hurontario Light Rail Transit project. Brampton City Hall was an ironic location for the open house; before Brampton Council voted against building the LRT up to Downtown Brampton and the GO/VIA Station, the LRT line would have stopped right here. Even with Brampton’s decision, there will be three stops in the city, so an open house for local residents to provide their feedback was still needed.

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The Hurontario LRT project, map via Metrolinx

The open house was quite interesting as more design details were displayed. There`s a focus on promoting active transportation — walking and cycling — and urbanizing much of the corridor. Three lanes of motor traffic will go down to two in most places, and right turning traffic will be tamed. This will make Hurontario Street a safer and more pleasant place to be.

Along the entire LRT corridor, Hurontario Street will feature separated bike infrastructure — for the most part, there will be separated bike lanes, with multi-use paths in a few areas, especially south of the Queensway, where Hurontario Street is narrower. Sidewalks are also wider. With only a few exceptions, cyclists will be able to ride across intersections without being required to dismount. Those exceptions are at the Queen Elizabeth Way, and at Highways 403 and 407, where Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) standards at interchanges will force the “stop, dismount, wait for gap” regime; pedestrians will also still have to yield to motor traffic.

img_8334-001Typical cross-section once the LRT is built. The orange paths are the separated bike lanes, the green paths are sidewalks. Hurontario Street will only have two traffic lanes in each direction. 

img_8328-001At expressways, like at Highway 407, pedestrians and cyclists still must yield to motor traffic at on-ramps. 

In another benefit for pedestrians and cyclists, channelized right turns are eliminated along the entire route. Channelized right turns (like the one shown below) are convenient for motorists, but they increase conflicts with foot traffic and are incompatible with lower speeds and safe cycling infrastructure. Their removal also creates new room for streetscaping opportunities.

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An example of a channelized right turn

The northern terminus of the LRT, at least for now, will be at Steeles Avenue. As Brampton debates other LRT alignments (Kennedy Road and McLauglin Road are indirect alternatives to reach Downtown Brampton), the stop was moved to the south side of the intersection. This is unfortunate: the Brampton Gateway bus terminal, which opened in 2012, was designed to easily connect with the planned LRT stop on the north side of the intersection, with two short crosswalks across southbound Main Street.

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Planned LRT terminus at Steeles Avenue, including tunnel between the LRT platform and the Brampton Gateway Terminal. 

Instead, a more expensive tunnel is required to accommodate transferring passengers between the LRT and buses. Elevators and escalators will provide direct access to the tunnel; crosswalks at Steeles Avenue and Lancashire Lane will also be accessible from the platform.

The final contract is planned to be signed in mid-2018 and construction should begin in Fall 2018. As the City of Mississauga backs the LRT project, hopefully any change in the provincial government will not jeopardize this plan. Not only will Mississauga (and south Brampton) get a fine new transit service, it will also see a tamer, more urbanized main street.

And maybe Brampton City Council will come to its senses and extend the transit corridor via the direct, least-expensive, Main Street alignment.

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Rethinking Downtown Brampton’s streetscape

IMG_8755-001Main Street looking north at Queen Street, Downtown Brampton

On Thursday, February 23, I went back to my hometown to check out plans for re-configuring Main and Queen Streets in Downtown Brampton. As the Region of Peel needs to replace water and wastewater infrastructure in the area, the timing is right for re-imagining what the streetscape should look like.

The same conversations are taking place in Downtown Toronto. There there are proposals for transforming King Street to prioritize transit and pedestrians; on Yonge Street, city planners, Ryerson University, and local businesses are looking to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as street furniture (such as benches and trees), patios, and special events. Of course, re-imagining downtown streets where cars are given priority will generate opposition, but it’s necessary in dense, urban cities were people, and not necessarily their cars, are given priority.

Downtown Brampton has great bones; it has numerous heritage buildings, several great public spaces, and GO Transit and VIA Rail trains stop right here. The Saturday Farmers’ Market is popular, as is ice skating at Gage Park. But despite some interesting new restaurants and bars, most retail has struggled here, and even new residential development in the area is sluggish. Improving the public realm, especially wider sidewalks and more attractive streetscaping, would be a relatively inexpensive, yet symbolically important, step to making downtown a more desirable place to be.

img_8159-001Sidewalks are narrow, and cyclists often take the sidewalks in Downtown Brampton. 

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