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An idea with merit

Restoring Merritton Station in St. Catharines can only benefit Niagara-bound travelers

Looking east on the CN mainline from Merritt Street in St. Catharines towards the Welland Canal

The case for reviving Merritton Station

On the morning of Saturday, July 9, a GO Transit train filled with hundreds of passengers heading from Toronto to Niagara Falls, was stuck at St. Catharines when a lift bridge over the Welland Canal was unable to lower the deck to allow trains to pass.

After over an hour of holding at the St. Catharines VIA Station, GO Transit was forced to send the train back to Toronto. In an advisory on Twitter, GO informed customers that they “will need to make their own accommodations” for getting between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, and would not be sending any shuttle buses.

Needless to say, this left many families disappointed. With GO Transit understandably unable to muster enough buses on a summer weekend to quickly transfer 1500 passengers (which would require at least 25 coaches), the decision not to provide alternate transportation is understandable, if unfortunate.

The summer weekend Toronto-Niagara train service is incredibly popular, especially the Saturday and Sunday morning departures from Union Station, and the evening return trip. Specially-outfitted bicycle coaches allow for dozens of bicycles to be transported by train; Niagara Region is an excellent cycling destination.

Recent fare innovations, including the $10 weekend day pass and a special GO Transit-Niagara Parks package have only contributed to the route’s success. As GO Transit is able to carry 1500 passengers on each train between Toronto and Niagara, it is invaluable not only for supporting the local tourism industry, it provides an alternative to driving on the congested Queen Elizabeth Way.

Unfortunately, the CN Grimsby Subdivision, which runs between Hamilton and Niagara Falls, is hardly ideal for frequent commuter and excursion service. Trains crawl through Hamilton, and much of the line is single-tracked, limiting capacity. Furthermore, trains to and from Niagara must back in to Hamilton’s West Harbour GO Station, which still does not have a direct connecting track to the east.

But the Welland Canal lift bridge is the greatest barrier for providing frequent and reliable rail service to Niagara Falls. During the Great Lakes shipping season, train traffic must yield to the busy St. Lawrence Seaway. Constructing a bridge or a tunnel is difficult and costly as railways are limited to typically no more than a 2% grade, and the freighters require a high clearance (as evident with the nearby QEW Garden City Skyway). Constructing a tunnel is also difficult, as the railway begins climbing the Niagara Escarpment just east of the canal, and would need to climb an even longer distance from canal. (A railway tunnel south of Welland has no such constraints as it is well above the escarpment.)

Looking east towards the Welland Canal lift bridge from Glendale Avenue. The disused CN Thorold Spur disappears into the weeds at right.

As a short-to-medium term measure, Metrolinx should look at constructing a new station at Merritton, located southeast of Downtown St. Catharines and approximately three kilometres east of St. Catharines Station. Until 1961, Merritton was an independent town, an industrial centre served by both the Grand Trunk/CN and the electric Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway. With amalgamation with St. Catharines, the closure of the passenger railway stations, and the loss of the historic paper and textile mills, Merritt Street has seen better days.

Merritt Street, just south of the CN Railway. The stone building at right is the former town hall.

Merritton’s CN Station was located on the east side of Merritt Street. Passenger service ended by the 1960s, and industrial switching activity between the former NS&T and CN’s Thorold spur line declined, so the building was eventually abandoned. It burned down in 1994, and there is little trace of its existence.

Unlike the active VIA station on the west side of St. Catharines, Merritton is quite close to the Welland Canal and the Niagara Circle Route. Merritt Trail, which follows the original Welland Canal route, is within a short walk from Merritton. It is also much easier for buses arriving from Niagara-On-The-Lake, Thorold, and Niagara Falls to access a station site at Merritton than the awkwardly-located St. Catharines Station, with four to five minutes saved, especially if there were direct access from Glendale Avenue.

St. Catharines VIA/GO Station, off of St. Paul Street West. Awkwardly located for bus access, the station platform is a 25 minute walk to Downtown St. Catharines.

Not too far from Merritton is St. Catharines Museum and Lock 3 Centre, which tells the history of the region and the Welland Canal; a platform provides excellent views of passing ships. Niagara College and the Outlet Collection are also close by, via Glendale Avenue. Whenever there’s a delay or failure at the lift bridge, there are more options at Merritton, especially if a proper bus transfer point is constructed.

Ideally, a grade-separated Welland Canal crossing would become an integral part of a frequent Toronto-Hamilton-Niagara-Bufffalo rail service. In the meantime, a stop at Merritton for GO commuter and excursion trains would provide new transit and cycling connections, while serving passengers in eastern St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Thorold.

St. Catharines: where the Bruce Trail is at its least Bruce Trail-ish

I travelled to St. Catharines on a lovely July Friday, taking GO Transit’s Route 18K bus from Aldershot Station through Hamilton, along the QEW, and to Brock University in St. Catharines. The university campus is at the top of the Niagara Escarpment, boasting direct connections with the Bruce Trail.

Statue of General Brock at the main university entrance

The walk eastwards towards Merritton from Brock University started out promising. The thick tree cover provided welcome shade, and apart from a rather dangerous crossing of Glenridge Avenue, felt little different than anywhere else on the southern part of the famous trail.

A promising start
Being watched by a young red-tailed hawk

At Tremont Drive, the trail suddenly enters a subdivision, with only the tell-tale white blazers to assure hikers that yes, in fact, this is part of the Bruce Trail.

Bruce Trail blazers are the only hint that this is part of Ontario’s greatest hiking trail

The trail continues to busy Glendale Avenue, and crosses Highway 406 at the interchange. At each traffic light, pedestrians are required to press the “beg button” to get a walk signal, even if one is crossing in the same direction as the through traffic. In most other places, the walk signal comes on automatically in conjunction with the dominant traffic flow.

Though the Bruce Trail also passes through Hamilton, a city nearly four times the size of St. Catharines, the trail there manages to remain separated from traffic and even from the city as a whole, much like Toronto’s ravine park systems.

Glendale Avenue at Highway 406: the lowpoint of the 900 kilometres of Bruce Trail

One reply on “An idea with merit”

I think a Merritton station along with a new grade-separated crossing of the Seaway both make sense. One could be done within a few years, and the other within a decade. But even if a new Seaway crossing is built, I think there is ‘merit’ in keeping Merritton.

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