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The future is rail

We discuss the environment and we begrudge the cars that make it a mess, the trucks that clog our roads, the traffic that slows us down, yet we all get into our cars and drive to where we want to go. Is it by choice? Sometimes. Is it by necessity? Sometimes. Are there realistic alternatives? Sometimes. What we really need is the answers to be yes, no, and yes. The future of transit in Canada can be found in the parallel bands of steel we call rail, for both passenger and freight. My vision for the expansion of rail is mainly focused around the Guelph and Waterloo regions, but the concepts can be expanded to a macro scale for populous regions of our country.

My vision for the future of rail involvement in public transit in Guelph and Waterloo Region is one of a three stage adoption. The first stage is the achievable, short term vision. It is what could be implemented in a year with a little political will. The second stage is medium term: what can we do with our existing infrastructure to improve commuter and mass transit in the area. The third is more or less the pipe dream category, ideas that would greatly improve our transit systems in the region and prepare us for the stresses of our ever increasing population.

The Region of Waterloo has a population that has recently broken 500,000 people. Guelph was around 94,000 people when I arrived in 1999 and now has a population closer to 120,000 people. Georgetown is a substantially smaller city a few miles east of Guelph that is part of the municipality of Halton Hills, along with Acton and a number of small towns in between.

Georgetown currently has 4 GO trains originating at its passenger rail station. The track they are on is one of the busiest freight lines in Ontario. Just beyond the GO station to the west the track forks. One track goes to Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Stratford, and St. Mary's on its way to London. The other turns south and passes through Milton, Burlington, the outskirts of Hamilton, Brantford, and Woodstock before reconnecting with the former just outside the Via station in London. The freight trains, with just one exception in each direction each day, all take this second line. The six daily Via trains through Georgetown take the former line. GO trains using this quieter line would have no measurable opposing traffic right through to Kitchener.

The track through Guelph and Kitchener is known colloquially as the North Mainline, but in rail terms is the Guelph subdivision. The track from Georgetown to Bramalea is the Halton subdivision, and from Bramalea to Union Station is the Weston subdivision. The Halton subdivision continues from Georgetown to Burlington where it connects with the lakeshore passenger corridor, known in rail terms as the Oakville subdivision.

The Guelph sub is leased from Canadian National (CN) by shortline operator RailAmerica which runs the line under the name Goderich-Exeter Railway (GEXR). This shortline runs a freight train daily from Stratford to Toronto and return, and a number of local trains which rarely come east of Guelph.

The tracks between Georgetown and Stratford were recently upgraded from bolted rail to welded rail, and most of these tracks now have a passenger train speed limit of 70 miles per hour, with no significant traffic on the line.

My first stage vision for rail service is to run the four GO trains that originate at Georgetown westward, departing Georgetown early in the morning, running to Breslau, just outside of Kitchener near the Region of Waterloo International Airport (YKF), and then back to Georgetown before continuing on to Toronto. This would allow commuters to commute in either direction in this area, and would not require GO transit to build new GO train storage facilities.

This could exist on existing infrastructure with existing trains with only a pair of new stations being required. One would be in Breslau, servicing Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding area, the other would be at the controversial Lafarge property in Guelph, right next to the Hanlon. There are existing passing tracks at Acton, Rockwood, Guelph, and Breslau, so GO trains travelling in each direction would have ample opportunity to pass each-other between Georgetown and Breslau and could thus co-exist on the line.

This would address one of the biggest commuter problems in our area. Waterloo region needs GO service to alleviate the ever-expanding need for more and bigger roads to handle the ever-increasing number of cars. Guelph needs it for much the same reason. People live in all these cities and commute to work, and that won't change any time soon. It is our responsibility as a society to make it work properly within our economical and environmental restraints, rather than allowing an infinite number of cars to dominate without providing viable alternatives.

The second stage of my vision for passenger rail expansion ties into aspirations Waterloo Region already has.

Waterloo Region has, for years, been discussing a Light Rail Transit system to run on the short piece of region-owned track between Kitchener and Elmira. It would service Waterloo region and the University of Waterloo under current plans. It would also be electrified immediately and cost far more money than it should to implement.

Very few people will use the LRT system if it is not planned and executed correctly and does not have a large enough network to be useful to the general public. It must connect the entire Region of Waterloo. Ideally, Light Rail trains would run from Elmira to Kitchener, connect to GO trains, and continue on all the way to Cambridge before returning. It should be run on diesel powered passenger trains, ideally starting with inexpensive second hand equipment, and only expanded to better equipment and/or electrified lines when the usage warrants the enormous expense.

Setting it up to be electrified immediately, and to only run for a few miles, would doom the LRT to failure. Taxpayer concerns over hundreds of millions of dollars spent when only a few million dollars would have made it run would cause the project to collapse after it starts, and failing to connect enough of the city with it will make it not useful further preventing it from gaining public acceptance.

Running an LRT system without connecting to GO trains would also not be useful. In order to take full advantage of an LRT system, a commuter or traveller should be able to hop on the LRT anywhere in the Waterloo Region, travel around it, then hop on a GO train and continue on to work, or to other areas, otherwise they will just continue to use their cars and never get on the LRT in the first place.

A successful and useful LRT system must run from Elmira to Cambridge to start, and must connect to preferably all-day GO service at Kitchener.

The GO trains that in stage one ran as far as Breslau would need to be expanded all the way to the west end of Kitchener, stopping once at a new park-and-ride terminal at the very west end just before the farmland on the way to Stratford and again at the existing Kitchener Via station for people connecting via an LRT system which would have go to through the same station before arriving at Breslau and continuing on through Guelph and Georgetown toward Toronto. These GO trains would need to run in bi-directional all-day service to be a realistic alternative to cars.

A GO train would also be needed on the Canadian Pacific line which currently sees no passenger service whatsoever in the area. GO trains currently run as far as Milton on this line, and then, without passengers, continue on to Campbellville to park for the night, though this will be changing January 4th, 2007 when a new GO train terminal will open in Milton. This line should absolutely be expanded to Cambridge where it would also connect to the LRT system.

This line would require a new station at Morriston, where highway 6 crosses the CP tracks, a park-and-ride station at Killean, just outside of downtown Cambridge, and an LRT connection at the old Cambridge passenger station by the river. This would be more difficult than the one on the Guelph subdivision as this line sees nearly two dozen freight trains a day and is single track west of Campbellville.

The third stage is to me the clincher, but is a fair ways off in the current political environment of our car culture.

Cambridge and Guelph are connected by a seldom-used (twice a week) freight line known as the Fergus subdivision. It connects with the Guelph sub at Alma Rd in Guelph and connects with the CP Waterloo sub which runs between Cambridge and Kitchener at Hespeler. Light rail trains could easily connect Guelph and Cambridge directly on this line, and, with a direct, frequent LRT connection between Guelph and Kitchener, a rail service triangle would be created.

Beyond that, the Guelph Junction Railway, a freight line owned by the city of Guelph and operated by Ontario Southland Railway, could see LRT service connecting Guelph and Campbellville, turning on to CP for a stop at Morriston to connect to CP-line GO trains and the Cambridge LRTs before returning to Campbellville and heading south to Hamilton, another large, vastly rail under-serviced city in the area.

LRT trains on this line could run from the station in Guelph on the Guelph subdivision, up the Guelph North Spur along Edinburgh Rd to Woodlawn, where it would connect with the Guelph Junction Railway tracks and return southward via the Wal-Mart, River Run Centre, and cross Victoria and York roads at their intersection on its way south.

Near Victoria Rd is another controversial piece of land next to railway tracks. It is a site contaminated with hazardous waste known as the Imico site, named for the factory that used to exist at that location. This large plot of land could be paved over and turned into a major park-and-ride terminal for a regional LRT network.

In Cambridge, the previously mentioned Fergus sub used to continue southward through the city, eventually winding up at Brantford, which is reasonably well serviced by five passenger trains in each direction between Toronto and London, on what is colloquially known as the South Mainline. Connecting this city, along with Hamilton, to the Waterloo Regional LRT network would help to severely curtail road traffic, particularly on secondary highways like highways 6 and 24, but would be immensely expensive as the right of way to Brantford is no longer intact.

Further, I would want GO service to run from Hamilton to Burlington where it would connect to the Halton sub to Georgetown, sticking to the freight line at Bramalea rather than heading for Toronto, and following it all the way to Bowmanville on the far side of Oshawa. This line would originate on the lakeshore line and connect to the CP at Milton, the North Mainline between Georgetown and Bramalea, and service currently unserviced tracks connecting to each of the other existing GO lines all the way to the lakeshore east line to Oshawa, allowing commuters for the first time to connect at locations other than Toronto Union station and allowing commuters to commute to locations other than downtown Toronto. Using a track like this, a commuter coming in from Barrie could transfer at the junction of the two lines and continue right into Hamilton with this bidirectional peripheral line without ever going into Toronto proper.

I believe rail lines should be rebuilt and expanded wherever and whenever possible. Canada is, to the best of my knowledge, the only country remaining on the planet that is still ripping up more of its rails than it is installing, and every new track installed is an investment in our environment and in our future. Abandoned rail rights of way that currently would appear to have no use in southern Ontario such as the line that used to run from Guelph to Palmerston via Elora and Fergus will eventually be essential to our transit strategy as Toronto expands, as it inevitably will if left unchecked if current trends hold, to engulf Waterloo Region and all of the surrounding communities. Every track that is put back in now while the rights of way are intact is one less that has to be expropriated later when houses have been built on them.

Rail expansion is important not only for passenger service, but also for freight. Guelph is currently investing in a large industrial park on the hanlon near the 401. It is three miles from the nearest tracks, which are owned by the city of Guelph no less, yet it is not going to be serviced by rail. While we talk about the need for rail service, our actions continue to show that we do not mean it. It would cost millions of dollars to connect the rail network to this new industrial park, but what will it cost us not to? Could we even measure it?

In short, I believe the future of our region can be found in rail. Roads cost billions of dollars every year to maintain, and the users of it, whether private or commercial, pay billions of dollars to private companies to use these roads in the form of vehicles, fuel, and insurance, most of which is never fed back into the road network. Yet people never complain about public investment in road networks because we understand the need for them. Public investment in rail is no less important than public investment in our road network, and is integral for us as we work toward environmental sustainability and decluttered roads. Cars have their place, but rail is the future.

Posted at 13:29 on December 19, 2006

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

End of year At Issue panel | guelph transit | Happy new year, and stuff

Saskboy writes at Tue Dec 19 22:45:50 2006...

You're so right about rail being the way of the future. It's too bad that the governments of all levels have allowed CN and CPR to gut the infrastructure tax payers built, and they made money by selling off.

cdlu writes at Wed Dec 20 09:52:39 2006...


I agree that it's too bad the governments have allowed that to happen. I certainly don't blame the railway companies for it, though it was shortsighted of them.

One concept I would like to see and I will write about at a later date is a means to encourage railways to not rip up rails even if they are not using them, and also to reduce infrastructure costs to railways to not make branch lines uneconomical.

That is a law that has the following two critical aspects:

- No railway right of way may be broken into parts and sold. If sold, it must be sold for railway use.

- No level of government may charge property tax to any railway company for any portion of their property where serviceable rails are present.

Nathan writes at Sat Dec 30 20:40:08 2006...

That's why every since World War 2, the railway business has been dwindling down. There is No future for trains. As long as trucks and buses rule the road there is not much of a future for trains. It is too hard for the government and businesses because they just don't like the railroad.

Mark Hagar writes at Sat Jan 6 08:33:26 2007...

Well written David.

As I am sure you are aware, Rob McIssac, former mayor of Burlington, has accepted a position to address transportation challenges in the GTA, and surrounding area. He would enjoy this well written article.

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