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How I came to believe in better public transit

If you told me four years ago that I would some day be an advocate for mass transit, I would have told you that you were crazy. I had recently bought myself a nice suburban house where I still live, I was on track for my wedding, and I had a beat up old car which has only gotten older and more beat up since. But around that time I picked up an innocent and somewhat eccentric hobby that would change my life and my outlook on the world: I started trainspotting.

The background

As a child, I took any opportunity I could to look out my grandparents' window on Nun's Island in Montreal at the Victoria Bridge a few miles to the east, a century-old railway bridge shared between cars and the railway. When my family took its annual winter pilgrimage to Port Salerno, Florida, where my snowbird grandparents had a condo, we took three days each way to drive there, and when we arrived, I took every opportunity I could to bike up South-East Cove Rd. in Port Salerno from the condominium of Emerald Lakes to sit and watch the Florida East Coast railway. Then I went to high school, and then university, and did not really think about trains for the better part of a decade.

Then, in late 2002, I published a rather goofy article on Slashdot about turning a cheap wireless camera into a model traincam. Someone who I had run into just once at the University some three years earlier saw the article and sent me an email inviting me to join the local historical railway group and try trainspotting. I borrowed a camera, and on February 1st, 2003, after staring wild-eyed at the television as the Columbia burned up on re-entry for the first part of the morning, I went down to a location which I have written about before called Guelph Junction with my new friend. We spent the day watching trains. On that first day, I saw 14 of them and became totally hooked on going to the train tracks with a camera to see what would come, and document it on a website I created for the purpose.

The cause

I took the hobby seriously. I bought a copy of the Canadian Trackside Guide, an annually updated publication that is no less than the bible for Canadian trainspotters, outlining the various details about Canada's railway network that no person in their right mind would have any reason whatsoever to care about. Trains became my professional sport, my local railways my team.

Over the next few years, I explored more railway lines in more places. I began to plan my family visits and my vacations around which railway tracks we could follow. As I spent more and more time and energy watching trains, I learned the layout and operations of southern Ontario's railway network. Who owned which track, what trains operated on that track, and how often they ran became matters of importance to learn.

Then it hit me like a run-away train. I was looking at the infrastructure that had built our country. While people were still completely reliant on horses around town, railways were already mature. Canada, I learned, had connected British Columbia to central Canada in three years flat by railway, less time than it seemingly takes us now to work through an Environmental Assessment for an overpass. The construction of the Canadian Pacific railway cut the cross-country over-land trip from a matter of months to a mere six days. The railway's very existence was a condition of British Columbia joining confederation. What hit me harder was that while many of Canada's cities were built around railway tracks and railway junctions, we had become a country of drivers who learned to see railways as a liability rather than as the enormous asset they are.

My real epiphany on the matter of transit probably can be traced back to an announcement on the corner of a page in the Guelph Tribune in early June of 2006 that prompted me to write my first anti-highway essay, entitled "A ten-lane 401?". For the first time in my life, I asked the question: how many lanes is too many?

While I am still waiting for an answer for this simple question, highway 401's 4-lane expansion on the short stretch referenced in that essay has been joined by the announcement, locally, of the construction of a new divided highway 7, cutting across farmland north of the existing highway 7 alignment, at a cost of an estimated $400 million. The divided highway through Guelph is to have 4 sets of traffic lights removed for $50 million. The other traffic lights on that highway are soon to follow. We are also going to spend around $16 million a piece to build two new parking garages in downtown Guelph. Yet no-one is willing to say at one point we have paved enough over.

Simply put, it led me to want a line drawn in the sand. At what point will highways be considered big enough, fast enough, or extensive enough? Will they ever? I don't believe so, not the way we are doing it today. But while we expand our highways, my experience trainspotting has taught me that our railways are largely very vastly under-utilised. We should be expanding our use of those railways first and then looking back at our highways when our railways are efficient, popular, and affordable, and see if the new highways are still needed. If the answer then is still yes, then and only then will it be the time to consider any form of highway expansion.

Here in Guelph, for example, railway tracks leave the city in four directions to the immediate neighbours of: Halton Hills (Acton and Georgetown) to the east and Kitchener to the west on the track known colloquially as the "North Mainline." This is joined by Campbellville to the south-east and Cambridge to the south-west. There used to be on the order of 8 to 10 passenger trains per day on each of these lines before the advent of the highway.

The first, the North Mainline, connects Guelph to Union Station in downtown Toronto. Six Via trains a day service this line, one each way at rush hour (07:05 and 18:50), one each way between morning rush hour and lunch (09:50 and 12:04), with one each way between evening rush hour and midnight (22:00 and 23:30). There are also, between Guelph and Georgetown, two freight trains a day -- one each way. Currently, the eastbound, originating in Stratford, goes through Guelph around 20:00, and the westbound, originating in Canada's biggest freight yard in Toronto, goes through Guelph about 01:00 in the morning. That is not a lot of opposing traffic and the tracks stay quiet for most of the day most days. There is an additional freight train a day on this same line between Kitchener and Guelph, which currently comes into Guelph around 9 in the morning, and goes back to Kitchener in the early afternoon.

But this track connects to a very busy Canadian National freight line in Georgetown where upwards of 20 freight trains per day rush past at all hours, turning south toward Burlington at Georgetown. More importantly, four GO trains terminate at that busy freight junction, where they swim upstream through the freight trains both ways every working day. Tired from this difficult journey, they stop in Georgetown and do not go up the blissfully quiet line to Guelph. This is more than an under-utilisation of the tracks, it is a travesty. While the province considers building Guelph still more highways to let our people off the transit hook, this track directly connecting Kitchener and Guelph to downtown Toronto, at the end of which four GO trains already park, has long enough between trains to turn to rust. Just before the last provincial election, GO transit's board of directors announced plans for an Environmental Assessment to bring service to this line, though we are still awaiting it.

The next track is the City of Guelph-owned Guelph Junction Railway. It has one train each working day, usually coming up to Guelph around 10:30 in the morning, and going back at some point in the afternoon. Up until just over one year ago, five, yes, five, GO trains ran from Milton to the south end of the Guelph Junction Railway every night, with no passengers, to stay the night and weekends. Does that even need any further comment? If so, read my post specifically on the topic of this line from a few days ago.

The last track is my favourite of all. It connects to Guelph's mainline at the eastern tip of the former Lafarge property and connects to a freight line from Cambridge to Kitchener near Hespeler, just south of the 401. Remember that train that comes to Guelph from Kitchener after rush hour and goes back in the early afternoon I mentioned a moment ago? Twice a week, with occasional extra trips, that same train turns south at Guelph and heads down to Cambridge on this line. That's it, that is every train on this track. At our end is the North Mainline, and at the other end is the track that will be used when (not if) Waterloo region eventually gets its Light Rail Transit line, though we don't really need to wait for that for us to put domestic rail service between Guelph and Cambridge on that line.

The effect

It is hard for me to understand why we would even consider building a new highway, or upgrading a highway, which is very much designed to get people between cities when we have so many perfectly good and vastly under-used railway lines that could, for a fraction the price of those highways, be equipped with passenger trains.

Will building more rail service mean our highways will be converted to desert wastelands? Absolutely not, but it can serve to arrest growth on those highways. As congestion reaches unsustainability for drivers, they will at least and at last have an alternative means of getting where they are going.

My concern is not about peak oil -- alternative fuels that are even less environmentally friendly like corn-based ethanol will probably make up for that -- so much as it is about peak pavement, peak congestion, peak car accidents (don't we say that "if just one life gets saved, it is worth it" about just about everything these days?), and peak sprawl. We cannot grow forever, quite frankly the earth is of a rather fixed size, yet our entire society is based on the premise that a failure to grow will be the end of the world. I think everyone should ask themselves what exactly is coming out of their car's tailpipe or off their ever-wearing down tires is going, but that seems to drive people to buy slightly more efficient cars that were hauled across the ocean by burning tons of bunker oil, rather than causing us to think through the alternatives.

Do I drive? I do. And that's the crux of the issue. I will advocate for alternatives, including both domestic bus and intercity rail, but I will use what is most appropriate logistically for me at any given time. What I hope for, what I dream of, and what I intend to accomplish before my life is over, is that our transit system will be funded as well as, or better than, our road system, and be efficient enough, that I, personally, and the majority of my fellow citizens, instinctively find that transit is the most appropriate, economical, and efficient means of getting where we are going. Abandoning our railways, sending our busses aimlessly meandering through the streets of our cities with no sense of purpose or direction, and building massive and countless new highways will never get us there.

The future

Today, our highways are, with the exception of the 407, funded entirely by public money. There are no user fees for our highways. We pay taxes through our purchases, including that of fuel, through our income, and through property taxes. A huge proportion of the money we give to the state gets returned to us in the form of pavement. Do I inherently object to that? No, not at all: roads are national infrastructure. But so are our railways, and that means that railways are not on a level playing field against roads.

Railway companies are directly responsible for the cost of maintenance and operations of every inch of their infrastructure, a cost that has resulted in the abandonment and removal of secondary railway lines throughout North America that we will soon sorely miss. Anybody who tells you that railways are heavily subsidised and that trucks and cars are not should be called out for the lie they are peddling. Railways, our most important and oldest national infrastructure, are not only funded and maintained almost entirely privately, but railway companies have to pay property taxes on their railway lines for the privilege, which directly go to fund roads, their chief competitor. Yet in spite of this, in spite of the fact that railways have every handicap and highways every advantage, railways are still competitive. If the railway infrastructure were publicly funded like the roads, with railway companies able to operate without directly paying every cost associated with their operation but the country as a whole taking on that responsibility, railways would show themselves to be the better option in almost every case. Isn't that what the free market so widely espoused by highway building politicians should be all about?

Next time you are stopped at a level crossing for a train, instead of wondering how long it will take to pass before you are able to drive on in your private motor vehicle, count the number of freight cars on that train and multiply it by 3. That is roughly the average number of trucks that you are not sharing the road with at that moment as a result of the train passing in front of you. And if it is a passenger train, every 11 heads you see looking at you out the window represents 10 cars that aren't waiting at the crossing with you.

As Guelph plans new highways and parking garages, I am saying it is time to draw our line in the sand. If we are to build parking, let it be to get people out of their cars, not into them. Build parking for train stations, not instead of them. Put more trains on the tracks, don't rip up the tracks to put a highway. We have to get it right the first time. We can't hit reset on this little rock we call home. This little rock does not deserve to be completely paved over and gassed out of existence. We are not entitled to the planet, we are only its tenants.

Posted at 09:19 on March 28, 2008

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