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Parks Travels

How two Ontario cities are re-imagining abandoned railway relics

Brockville and St. Thomas are two small Ontario industrial cities that wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But both communities are working on remarkable projects that re-purpose former railway infrastructure to create interesting public spaces that don’t just lure out-of-town visitors, but add a significant asset to be enjoyed by the entire community. The St. Thomas Elevated Park and the Brockville Railway Tunnel are the type of local, community-driven projects that I can get excited about.

St. Thomas likes to call itself the Railway Capital of Canada. One hundred years ago, five separate railway companies served the city. The Canada Southern (CASO) Railway, later purchased by the Michigan Central Railroad (which became part of the New York Central empire), built its headquarters and shops here; its double-tracked corridor was the fastest route between Buffalo and Detroit. St. Thomas was a stop on the London and Port Stanley Railway, a busy electric railway that ran regular passenger services until 1957. On the edge of town is the Jumbo monument, near the site where the famous Barnum and Bailey circus elephant was killed during a train stop.

IMG_1330-001Jumbo Monument, at the westerly entrance to Downtown St. Thomas

IMG_1310-001The 1873 Canada Southern Station. The tracks it once served have disappeared.

Today, most lines into St. Thomas are abandoned, including the once-mighty Canada Southern; major rail customers such as Ford Motor Company closed local factories. The last passenger train, Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow, departed from St. Thomas in 1979. The Port Stanley Terminal Railway runs tour trains along part of the old L&PS route, but its trains — for now — only board in Port Stanley.

Despite the loss of the railways, St. Thomas has retained much of its railway heritage. The Elgin County Railway Museum has made its home in the old Michigan Central shops. The station building still stands too — built in 1873, it is one of the longest stations in Canada, extending 108 metres. It was recently renovated and houses offices and retail businesses. A replica of the LP&S station was built downtown, with the hopes of accommodating Port Stanley-bound tour trains. Just west of Downtown St. Thomas is the Kettle Creek Viaduct, which is slated to become a new signature park.

IMG_1326-001Kettle Creek Viaduct, the future St. Thomas Elevated Park, in August 2017

Categories
Cycling Infrastructure Parks Toronto Walking

The ravine run around

IMG_2475-001Wilket Creek trail closure, September 2017

Last week,  my wife and I went for a walk through the Toronto Botanical Gardens, Edwards Gardens, and Wilket Creek Park, all part of Toronto’s wonderful and extensive ravine system. The ravines are one of Toronto’s greatest assets, and many are connected by multi-use trails, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to experience nature, close to home. Some trails, like the Lower Don, are also important commuter routes for those who walk or cycle to school or work.

Unfortunately, several of these trails are closed for long periods for construction, and they do not get the same attention that roads and highways get.

The Wilket Creek Trail, between Edwards Gardens and Sunnybrook Park, has been closed since Spring 2017, and will remain closed until Spring 2018. The Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is repairing damage caused by erosion, and restoring the local ecosystem. The same trail was closed two years ago for similar construction work.

The pedestrian detour on Leslie Street is straightforward, and does not deviate too far from the route. However, Leslie Street is busy and motorists drive at high speeds, so it is not a good safe route for cyclists. To the City of Toronto and TRCA’s credit, at least, the detours are well mapped and construction notices are signed well in advance. (I’ve experienced trail closures without any warnings or suitable marked detour routes.)

IMG_2476-001Advance warnings and a detailed detour map on the Wilket Creek Trail

Further south, the Lower Don Trail between Pottery Road and the footbridge at Riverdale Park will re-open on September 23, 2017, fourteen months late. That work was done to replace an underpass at a disused rail corridor owned by Metrolinx.

As Metro reporter David Hains points out, that re-opening was re-scheduled several times between July 2016 and August 2017 — unexpected soil conditions and wet weather were blamed for the delays.  Pedestrians and cyclists were directed to use either Broadview Avenue or Bayview Avenue to get around the closure; both are busy roads, and Broadview Avenue is at the top of a steep grade from the Don Valley.

Other major closures included the Humber River Trail under Highway 401 near Weston Road, which was closed for several months in 2016 so that trail users would not be in the way of construction vehicles. The suggested detour, a 3 kilometre long circuitous route, followed Wilson Avenue, a busy suburban road.

This year, the Etobicoke Creek Trail under Highway 401 in Mississauga is also closed for two years for bridge work. There are no safe alternatives for crossing Highway 401 in that area.

Humber.jpgThe circuitous and dangerous 2016 Humber River Trail detour at Highway 401. Source: MTO.

The long and dangerous closures of major pedestrian and cycling routes can be compared to the way road repairs are prioritized. Mayor John Tory announced $3.4 million to speed up construction on the Gardiner Expressway in 2015, when the elevated highway was reduced to two lanes in each direction from three. In August, Tory announced additional funds to speed up watermain and streetcar track construction on Dundas Street between Yonge and Church Streets, perhaps not coincidentally a route many city councillors drive to get to City Hall.

If only there were some additional money and attention given to projects affecting pedestrians and cyclists in Toronto. It would also be nice to ensure any detours were well signed, and made as safe and comfortable as possible.