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Column on UK vs CA rail service

I recently travelled to the UK and spent a lot of my time travelling around the country on the country's expansive rail network. Some stats that couldn't fit into the column: 550 trains a day go through Oxford station, including freight trains and passenger trains that don't stop. 1,100 trains a day go through nearby Reading station. According to the CIA World Factbook, Canada has ~415,600 km of paved roads and 48,000 km of rail, and the UK has ~398,366 km of paved road and 16,567 km of rail.

U.K. shows us the value of rail transit

Ever taken a train to the airport? I dream of being able to get to Canada's major airports by train.

The U.K. and much of Europe have a transit network that provides a real option to private cars. I saw a vivid demonstration of this visiting High Wycombe and Marlow stations, nearby satellite towns outside London, England that connect to different major routes, allowing passengers to avoid an overburdened hub. Marlow is a town on the end of a short branch line reminiscent of the Guelph Junction Railway. Every hour, a short passenger train completes a loop the length of the Marlow branch, connecting several small communities to the main line through the area at Maidenhead.

There, 15-minute train service connects the station to London to the east, a hub at Reading to the west, and the rest of the United Kingdom. Just to the west of Marlow is a similar branch connecting the next set of communities in a similar way. Both lines have privately operated dedicated trains and crews that service exclusively the local branch lines covering a distance of no more than a few miles.

These rail networks have not replaced the road system. They work with it, drawing down automobile traffic and allowing both systems to operate at a lower total cost. While a similar rail service is not practical for all Canada, there is no reason to build more highways in southern Ontario before we have complemented what we have with this level of rail service.

What stops us from having service that never drops below an hourly service between London and Toronto via Guelph, Cambridge, and Brantford, with north-south lines connecting them along the way?

The tracks are almost all in place. The traffic is there to justify the investment in such a network -- it needn't be high speed. Instead of servicing the demand with a proven rail infrastructure, we await the pending construction of the new Highway 7, new Highway 24, rebuilt Hanlon, and new GTA West highway corridor. Why do we lack the vision to build and maintain a rail network that works in concert with other means of transportation? Why are our taxes used to increase the size of our road network instead? Build and price rail competitively. It will save us in the long term.

For about $400, I had access to nearly every train in England at any time of any day as much as I wanted for the week I was there. That cost would barely get me to Montreal and back on Via. Individual trips for short distances can almost always be done in the U.K. for just a few pounds-paid on board without reservations. By contrast, Via's minimum regular fare is approximately $21 to travel to the next station.

We lack the vision to consider our rail system as a complement to our overall transportation network, seeing it instead as competition to aircraft. Trains are a way to facilitate inexpensive, efficient regional travel.

In London, England, it is possible to get to the city's major airports by train. The same applies to most major airports in the country. Often, the train is inexpensive and practical. Gatwick, for example, is accessible by train not only from London, but by direct train from Reading and other hubs, allowing connections from all over without entering London or having to take a car further than the nearest railway station, themselves usually well-serviced by buses.

Toronto Pearson, by comparison, is bordered to the north-east by the GO Weston subdivision, a railway line that runs nearly exclusively passenger trains, to the tune of 16 per day. In spite of bordering airport property, none stop at the airport, nor does the recently built airport monorail connect to this high capacity transit link.

Reading's direct service to Gatwick would be comparable to Guelph's service to Pearson, which is eminently doable if only we had the vision.

Toronto's ever-proposed Blue 22 service to Pearson would not help those of us coming from the Guelph side. We would have to take the train to Toronto and connect back out to the airport, along the same line we had just taken.

While on my travels, I also visited the West Somerset Railway. The tourist line connects the city of Taunton 35 kilometres north to the coastal city of Minehead.

On a Tuesday, the line's three trains running back and forth some 16 times provided more regular service than Guelph sees each day, for a smaller population base, and it was often difficult to find seat. And that is nothing compared to the 256 passenger trains per day scheduled to stop at Banbury station, a city about one-third the size of Guelph between Birmingham and Oxford.

While I flew into Pearson and waited for a car to take me along beside the railway tracks back to Guelph, I ask you to ponder what role trains should have.

Is our vision to continue paving over our region while trains languish, or could we perhaps learn a bit from the Old Country?

Posted at 21:11 on July 09, 2009

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