A visit to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

IMG_0319-001New Glasgow City Hall

After our wedding, we went away to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I’ve been to Halifax and the Annapolis Valley once before, in April 2004, but I’ve never been to Cape Breton (which has become one of my favourite places in Canada), or PEI.

It was a wonderful trip. We drove the Cabot Trail, hiked several trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, enjoyed great meals featuring local seafood, visited restored historic sites such as the Fortress of Louisbourg, and spent some time wandering around Halifax and Charlottetown. I’ll write more on those adventures later.

Driving through Nova Scotia on the way to Cape Breton, you must pass through Pictou County on Highway 104, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Most travelers pass through, or stop off the highway for gas or food. But the region has an interesting history, and we visited two historic sites there which are off most tourists’ radar.

Once an industrial powerhouse, settlements such as New Glasgow, Stellarton, and Trenton have been hit by the closures in the steel industry and in coal mining. Trenton had a large steel mill; the TrentonWorks plant produced rail cars until 2007. Coal mining was also important to both northern Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton, but today, only one surface coal mine remains in the province near Stellarton. Today, Stellarton might be most known as the hometown of and headquarters for the Sobeys supermarket chain and its parent company, Empire Corp. The town of Pictou was known for its shipbuilding industry.

New Glasgow, which we visited, is the largest community in Pictou County, and the regional centre for central Nova Scotia. We stayed in New Glasgow overnight, as we were to take the Northumberland Ferry to PEI early the next morning.


In 1947, Viola Desmond, a successful Black entrepreneur, was removed by police from the Roseland Theatre for refusing to sit in the upper segregated seating area, but in the ‘whites only’ section. She was charged and convicted for tax evasion – the one cent difference in the provincial amusement tax between the ticket she was sold and the lower level seating. Despite this injustice, the apology and pardon from the Nova Scotia government didn’t come until 2010. That year, a plaque was unveiled in New Glasgow. Since then, there has been more recognition of this injustice and of Desmond’s importance — a new ferry was named for her in Halifax, and she will appear on the next issue of the $10 bank note.

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Roseland Theatre building, June 30, 2017

Today, the Roseland Theatre is closed (the theatre later became a club). I found the building (which is being renovated, and the marquee removed), but I had trouble finding the plaque. I found out it was located two blocks away from the theatre building, next to the public library.

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The plaque commemorating Viola Desmond is located two blocks away from the Roseland Theatre

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On May 9, 1992, sixteen miners were killed in a methane and coal gas explosion at the nearby Westray Mine. News of the explosion, and coverage of the attempted rescue efforts was one of the first major news stories I clearly remember, and the first I really understood. I was eleven when it happened. (Though I also remember the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, I was eight years old at the time, and I couldn’t understand the significance. Westray was the first news story that I remember and which I could understand clearly.)

Tragically, eleven bodies remain underground. The mining company ignored unsafe working conditions, and the government was complicit in knowing about the problems but not forcing changes — the Westray mine promised jobs, not only in the mine, but in other local industries, such as TrentonWorks, which was contracted to supply rail cars for shipping coal to a nearby power generation station. The mine had lots of support at all three levels of government; this likely contributed to pressure to keep it open despite serious safety concerns. Furthermore, criminal proceedings against the company and its management were botched.

IMG_0316-001Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park, New Glasgow

Though the main Westray Mine site and shaft were located at Plymouth, to the south of New Glasgow, the explosion took place north of Highway 104, within the city limits. Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park is located close to the site. Besides a garden and a monument with all sixteen men’s names, there are several interpretative plaques on the history of the Westray Mine, the explosion, and the aftermath.

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My life, so far

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I’ll be taking a break from writing on this blog and elsewhere for a few weeks. I will be preoccupied, as I’m getting married, then leaving for my honeymoon in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

For many years, I never thought that I would become as happy as I am now. During my three dozen years on this planet, I have struggled through two bouts of life-threatening childhood illness, and their long-term side effects, bullying, depression, low self-confidence, criminal intimidation and civil litigation, and not knowing where I stood in life.

On the positive side, I have always benefited from a loving and supportive family and a small core of wonderful friends. And I have found an amazing life partner.

Growing up, I was a socially awkward child, a true nerd. At the age of three, I was collecting and studying maps. By four, I was drawing maps and creating fantasy cities. I bugged my parents to take me to Toronto to ride streetcars and even the Scarborough RT when it was still new in the 1980s. I was destined to be a geographer or an urban planner.

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I was also clearly destined to go on long bike rides, exploring southern Ontario. 

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Province to look at hydrogen-powered GO trains, but it is it simply hot air?

IMG_0268-001Electrification for GO Transit and UP Express has been proposed for years

At GO Transit’s Willowbrook Maintenance Centre in Mimico today, the Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca,  announced the start of the transit project assessment process (TPAP) that will allow GO to move forward with its plans for electrification. GO RER, the $13.5-billion regional rail network plan, is dependent on a new fleet of electric trainsets to provide rapid transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

But Del Duca introduced a new twist to the plot. Along with the electrification TPAP, the province will also look into the feasibility of hydrogen-powered trains. Hydrogen-powered trains are being tested in Germany by Alstom, a French rail manufacturer.

Quoted in the Toronto Star, Del Duca said that “this is a decision that we’re making that will have to last for a generation and beyond, so we want to make sure that we’re at the leading edge of the technology.”

The Alstom experimental train, a Cordelia LINT, is a similar model to the one used in Ottawa for the O-Train Trillium Line, a diesel light rail operation. The hydrogen-powered model has yet to be tested in revenue service; hydrogen propulsion also has yet to be tested on heavier rail equipment. The Cordelia LINTs are light rail vehicles, and under current railway regulations, cannot share the same tracks with heavier freight and passenger trains.

My fear is that this is yet another distraction from transportation needs in the here and now. Further, I worry that the “fuel cell technology symposium” will not only distract from the GO RER project, it will give credence to NIMBYs opposing electrification – be it the construction of gantries and overhead wires, or those worried about the effects of electromagnetism.

I have more faith in building sound, tested and true, transit systems than pursuing the newest technology there is. Electric trains have been around for over 100 years. Electric multiple unit regional rail as we know it is used in scores of cities worldwide, including Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia. Electric multiple unit trains (EMUs), which can be purchased from at least a half-dozen firms, are reliable, quick, and suitable for GO RER.

The provincial government has an unfortunate history of promoting new technologies that end either in failure — the 1970s-era GO-ALRT plans, for example, or the promotion of Ontario-made compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to replace electric trolley buses in Toronto and Hamilton in the early 1990s. (Those buses were either scrapped early, or converted to conventional diesel propulsion.) The Scarborough RT, originally planned as the nucleus of a conventional light rail network, was replaced by a propitiatory linear induction system heavily promoted by the province.

The idea of hydrogen-powered trains is attractive: they have zero at-source emissions; the Alstom train is train is exceptionally quiet, and only emits steam and condensed water. Electrification requires overhead gantries and wires, along with substations at regular intervals; hydrogen-powered trains require none of these expenses. What isn’t clear is whether hydrogen powered trains offer the other advantages of electric train operation, namely quick acceleration and deceleration needed for a frequent-stop regional rail service.

I want GO RER to be built, and I want it to be built right. I just fear that the attention given to an emerging technology will be yet another distraction, especially going into an election year.

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Wandering the Waterfront Trail in Scarborough

IMG_8897-001At the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs, west of Bluffer’s Park

Lake Ontario, like all five of the Great Lakes, is more a freshwater sea than merely a lake. It’s over three hundred kilometres long, from Hamilton to Kingston, bordering two countries, with several inhabited islands, and features a varied and fascinating landscape. Lake Ontario’s vastness is best appreciated from its shore, whether it be the Toronto Islands, on the east side, on the beaches at Presqu’ile or Sandbanks Provincial Parks, or from the top of the Scarborough Bluffs.

The Waterfront Trail, at least in theory, is a wonderful way to explore these varied shorelines of Ontario’s vast Great Lakes on foot or by bicycle. Founded in 1995, the trail now extends from the Quebec border, west along the St. Lawrence River, through Niagara, along the north shore of Lake Erie, and up the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers to Lake Huron. I cycle the Waterfront Trail between Toronto and Hamilton several times a year, an 85-kilometre trip. GO Transit’s trains and buses follow the Waterfront Trail from Durham Region to the Niagara River, making it easy to walk or cycle one-way, returning by train and/or bus.

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The Waterfront Trail crosses Highland Creek in eastern Scarborough. (2015 photo)

But the Waterfront Trail is dependent on municipal infrastructure, or the lack of it. Most of the trail’s route winds through rural areas, following country roads and highways where segregated multi-use trails aren’t built: in many places, the Waterfront Trail is neither close to the water, nor is it a ‘trail’ of any kind. At least in Northumberland County and Niagara Region, paved shoulders and bike lanes are found along the busier country roads. But this is not always the case.

In urban areas, though, like the City of Toronto, there is both the demand and the resources for safe pedestrian and cycling infrastructure along the waterfront. In the old city of Toronto, the Waterfront Trail follows the Martin Goodman Trail, and is nearly completely segregated from motor traffic.

But in Etobicoke and in Scarborough, much of the trail is routed via on-street sections; in sections, pedestrians must follow sidewalks next to busy sections of Lake Shore Boulevard and Kingston Road; for cyclists, there aren’t even any bike lanes — they have the choice of either riding with traffic, or illegally riding on the sidewalks.


Route of the Waterfront Trail within the City of Toronto

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The TTC double-charged me again when I used Presto

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Sugar Beach

The weekend of May 26-27 in Toronto was a lovely one. My fiancée and I spent the Saturday and Sunday walking around Toronto, visiting some of the Doors Open sites and Harbourfront. Among the highlights were the new Daniels School of Architecture at 1 Spadina Crescent, a beautiful heritage re-use of the original Knox College (the neo-gothic building that looms over Spadina Avenue), and the Toronto Railway Museum, located at Toronto’s Roundhouse.

After the Doors Open sites closed at 5:00 PM, we walked along the waterfront as far east as Sugar Beach, before heading west to the High Park neighbourhood for dinner. With the Bloor-Danforth Subway (Line 2) closed for maintenance between Broadview and St. George Stations, we opted to take a local bus on Queen’s Quay to Union Station, transfer to the subway there, and transfer again at St. George to Keele.

Route 72B Pape operates between Pape Station and Union Station via Commissioners Street and Queen’s Quay, a valid and long-standing transfer with the subway at Union. The 509 and 510 streetcars serve Union via a direct, underground connection, but buses — the 6 Bay, the 72 Pape, and the 121 Fort York-Esplanade — have on-street stops at Front and Bay Streets; a transfer is required.

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The surface route network at Union Station, from the 2017 TTC system map

I made the assumption that the transfer would be recognized by Presto when we tapped on the 72B Pape bus, and again when we got into the station. That turned out to be a mistake, as I found out a few days later when I checked my Presto activity online. At 6:27 PM, the TTC $3.00 Presto fare was paid on the bus (Queen’s Quay East at Jarvis Street West Side), and again at 6:41 PM at Union Station.  Continue reading

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A call for a progressive Toronto

18506683800_6c96dcc66b_k.jpgI created this website two and a half years ago as a repository for the series of maps I created documenting the results of the 2014 municipal election. Unlike many political observers, I focused not just on the mayoral race, but also on each of the 44 council races; I created poll-by-poll maps illustrating how each ward voted, for both mayor and councillor. I thought that the information might be useful for the 2018 election.

I kept this blog going by sharing my thoughts on public transit, land use planning, electoral reform, as well as other diversions, such as out-of-town bike rides and my trip on Cuba’s Hershey Train. It has been a lot of fun sharing those thoughts. Yet I remain interested in city politics, especially in electing better people to Toronto City Hall.

The last municipal election was very disappointing. I originally supported Olivia Chow, before turning my attention to David Soknacki, who ran on a campaign of ideas and honesty, but dropped out in early September 2014. I was repulsed by the incumbent mayor, Rob Ford, and his brother, Doug, yet I couldn’t trust John Tory, who ran on a centre-right platform of low tax increases, a since-discredited transit plan called “SmartTrack” and not being Rob or Doug Ford.

Tory won that election, of course, beating Doug Ford and Olivia Chow. Tory’s support came from his midtown base of relatively affluent, mostly white, home-owning voters. Tory also did well in other affluent neighbourhoods, such as Etobicoke’s Kingsway, Swansea, the Beaches, and Cliffside, and in neighbourhoods where condominium apartments are a common housing type. As Chow’s campaign floundered, Tory picked up the votes from progressive electors afraid of a Doug Ford win. In the end, Olivia Chow did best in west-end, older downtown neighbourhoods like the Annex, Seaton Village, Parkdale, and Trinity-Bellwoods.

2014 Election - Mayor Votes by Sub 2014How Toronto voted in 2014

Giving Tory some benefits of my doubts, I had hoped that he would push a strong city-building agenda, balancing business interests with the needs of disadvantaged residents. Instead, Toronto got an austerity agenda with the top goal of keeping property taxes low, leaving essential city services underfunded and public housing units falling apart. He resisted police reform, including flip-flopping on the elimination of the racist carding program. His signature transit plan, SmartTrack, was watered down to a point where it’s nearly unrecognizable, wasting valuable time and capital that could have been spent developing the Relief Line subway. It’s almost as if we re-elected Rob Ford, but without the homophobia, overt racism, and self-destructive behaviour.

Tory is backed by a council that has mostly supported his agenda. Had a few council races gone another way, the mayor would have had a harder time freezing or cutting budgets for housing and shelters, transit, libraries, planning services, and other essential programs. Last week, Tory and his council allies endorsed a budget freeze for 2018, defeating motions to exempt homeless shelters, poverty-reduction programs, and long-term care homes. Accounting for inflation, this is in effect, another budget cut of two percent.

John Tory will run for re-election in 2018, and he is already in campaign mode, targeting the province for funds to repair TCHC housing and the Relief Line. It’s possible that Doug Ford will run for mayor again, on a right-wing populist message. So far, no one has indicated that they will run to the left. At least there’s still city council, with 44 members, which is difficult, but possible to change. Council, not the mayor, holds the power.

In 2014, only one incumbent —John Parker, in Ward 26 — was defeated. Parker, a thoughtful and reasoned conservative, lost his seat to Jon Burnside, a former Toronto police officer endorsed by John Tory. In total, only seven new councillors were elected to City Council that year, though there were two by-elections since.

But each of those newcomers were elected either on a second run for city council, came from another level of political office, or had family political ties. There’s hope for next year.

Right-leaning councillors Burnside and Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5) ran unsuccessful campaigns in 2010 and won office on the second try. John Campbell (Ward 4) was the previous Chair of the Toronto District School Board, and Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39) was a Liberal MP. Stephen Holyday (Ward 3) is the son of former Etobicoke mayor and councillor Doug Holyday, and Joe Cressy (Ward 20) is also the son of two former Toronto city councillors. Christin Carmichael Greb is the daughter of defeated Conservative MP John Carmichael. Carmichael Greb also enjoyed John Tory’s endorsement; Tory’s robocalls supporting her campaign  helped her win in a hotly contested open race.

To win a seat on Toronto City Council, especially without a party system, you need name recognition or you need connections. Having political connections makes it a lot easier to raise money and attract talent to run a campaign. That name recognition gives you attention from the media and helps at the ballot box. It’s a lousy system that shuts out too many fine, talented people who are unable to spend the money and time to run a serious campaign, and it creates political dynasties, for better or for worse.

With only 18 months before the 2018 municipal election, it’s time for anyone who opposes the Ford/Tory agenda to organize.

It’s likely that Mayor Tory will likely win re-election, but we still need a strong, progressive candidate for mayor, willing to take Tory to task for the consequences of his budget cuts, his dithering on transit infrastructure, and his resistance to police reform. If nothing more, it will make the mayor accountable, and energize progressive voters.

But even more importantly, it’s necessary to back progressive candidates for city council, ideally replacing weak representatives on City Council, and especially against unreasonable and uncooperative politicians like Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7), and councillors who actively resist change, like Tory ally Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5),who blocked municipal voting reform and is now fighting Toronto’s new ward boundaries.

Council, too, needs even more diversity. It needs more women and people of colour to better reflect the city it is supposed to represent. And there are good people working towards that. For example, on Wednesday, June 7, Women Win Toronto, will launch.

I will be backing several progressive candidates next year — some of whom will be running a second time — by contributing my time and money in key races. (I’ll share my endorsements next year.) Only a few new faces need to be elected to change the dynamic at City Hall. And even if you doubt your chances of winning in 2018, run anyway. You will have the chance to have your voices heard, and set the stage for running again in 2022. That’s how politicians get elected.

Good luck!

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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 most of 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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