VIA 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.
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.