By Greg Gormick
The campaign by the mayors from Toronto to Kitchener for improved GO service is welcomed by all of us who want a modern rail system in Southwestern Ontario. But to succeed fully, that municipal push requires some adjustments.
First and foremost, the mayors need to recognize that citizens west of Kitchener need improved rail service, too. Traditionally known as the North Main Line, the route on which the mayors want to see rapid rail improvements implemented continues west through Stratford, St. Marys and London to Sarnia. At London, it connects with the South Main Line from Toronto, Brantford and Woodstock, which extends west to Windsor. Both of these routes are served over their entire lengths by VIA Rail.
To be fully effective, any Toronto-Kitchener plan needs to be part of a network approach that includes these two longer and interlocking rail services. This is especially necessary now that we have the possible added dimension of high-speed rail (HSR) on at least a portion of this network. This is being studied for the province by former federal Minister of Transport David Collenette, who will deliver his recommendations in November. If it’s ever built, HSR will overlap GO’s Toronto-Kitchener route and duplicate or supplant some of VIA’s services.
Furthermore, adding HSR to this mix will complicate a situation that is already strained because of the competing needs of the current players, both passenger and freight. With the provincial assessment of HSR now occurring, the opportunity is here to minimize duplication and deal early with the questions of ownership, operating priority and capacity.
A realistic master plan that recognizes the very real capacity problems that exist now and are preventing the implementation of increased Toronto-Kitchener GO service is required. One mayor has said he doesn’t believe the limitations of the existing infrastructure are as severe as they’ve been portrayed. Not only is he mistaken, but his statements are building up false public expectations about fast delivery of improved Toronto-Kitchener service.
There are several impediments to passenger improvements and they need to be recognized – not lightly dismissed – and then aggressively pursued. The first is between Toronto Union Station and Bramalea, where the province needs to expedite the construction of a fourth main track on its own right-of-way to accommodate GO, VIA and its Union Pearson Express trains.
The next chokepoint is from Bramalea to Georgetown, which is a key component of CN’s Montreal-Chicago freight route. Completing the required third main track through downtown Brampton and over the Credit River will not come easy or cheap and this stumbling block needs to be addressed realistically.
West of Kitchener, the provincially-owned Georgetown-Kitchener line segment also requires substantial infrastructure work to accommodate GO, the Goderich-Exeter short line railway’s freight trains and VIA. HSR would expand these needs greatly.
A basic question also needs to be asked about the multiple operators on this line and whether this is delaying service improvements. Does it make sense to have federally- and provincially-funded services competing for passengers and scarce track time by operating trains that often run within minutes of each other? Should we be following the U.S. example, where the federal government has transferred operating responsibility for corridor routes of up to 1,200 kilometres to the states, which then coordinate intercity and commuter services?
It will be in the best interests of all – passengers, politicians, freight shippers and rail service providers – if Waterloo Region’s urgent need for improved rail service is considered as part of a broad and comprehensive examination of our transportation needs between Toronto and the U.S. border. That needs to be undertaken with the informed input of users, operators and all levels of government.
The one thing we cannot afford is a narrow and unrealistic viewpoint based only on the needs of one portion of this region or the traditional roles of each player. Those U.S. regions that have knocked down politically-built boundaries and cooperatively crafted regional transportation solutions demonstrate how we can and should do it here in Southwestern Ontario.
Our future economic, social and environmental competitiveness demands that we do so.
Greg Gormick is the campaign coordinator for the All Aboard St. Marys citizens’ committee.