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Celebrating our heritage

Today's column ties Guelph's rail history to Guelph's rail future through Guelph's rail present. The message in it applies to communities all over, though. Waterloo residents can drop in Waterloo Central where Guelph Junction Express is mentioned, Orangeville and Brampton residents can look toward the Credit Valley Explorer, and the further away you go, the more of these tourist railways you find viably running on railway lines that could be hosting real passenger service.

Rail transport is not just a thing of the past

On Election Day, last Oct. 14, a teenager playing with fire destroyed the restored historic railway station in the Quebec town where I grew up. A few short years ago, Strathroy's station, too, was torched. The River Run Centre was built on the site of the original Guelph Canadian Pacific station, which was the Priory. Our Great Western station, once near the former Lafarge property, has been gone for generations. The Grand Trunk station remains in service as the city's Via Rail station, soon to be joined by GO transit and the city's bus system. This is the sole survivor of at least seven train stations built in Guelph since 1827.

It used to be that the Guelph Junction Railway was part of the Canadian Pacific network as a passenger and freight line, connecting Goderich to Hamilton through Guelph. The line was abandoned from Guelph to Goderich some years ago, and passenger trains have not run on the balance with any regularity for over four decades.

Now that has changed. Last year, a local business person started the Guelph Junction Express, a tourist railway running between downtown Guelph and Guelph Junction, which is just west of Campbellville, on weekends.

Guelph residents have an opportunity to see this passenger train as it goes by the site of the old CPR station at the River Run Centre. The symbolism cannot be overstated.

The Guelph Historical Railway Association, which has been an active participant in the Guelph Junction Express project and has provided volunteer labour for many aspects of its preparation and operation, is putting on a special trip on April 25, running the Guelph Junction Express passenger train over most of Guelph's railway tracks. It will cover all of the tracks from Guelph Junction to north of Woodlawn Road, and into the industrial tracks that cross the Hanlon Expressway between Speedvale Avenue and Woodlawn Road, off of Edinburgh Road. This is an opportunity to experience Guelph's existing, and still active, rail network.

The tracks on which the Guelph Junction Express operates represent a huge opportunity for Guelph, if we have the courage to rise to the challenge. While studies looking at transportation in the region see tracks that run from Guelph to nowhere, and studies in the region south of us see tracks that run from Hamilton to nowhere, we must see that these tracks do not go nowhere, but connect Guelph to Hamilton.

Imagine a direct train from here to Hamilton. When Guelph had 20,000 people, passenger trains regularly ran that route. Now, with over 120,000 people, we have settled for a tourist train, celebrating rail transit as an exotic form of transportation that only our grandparents used.

While we treat passenger trains as a tourist attraction rather than as a practical way to get around, a ride on the Guelph Junction Express will challenge that assumption. Short-, medium- and long-distance travel are all possible by rail. All we lack is the imagination and courage to invest and restore our service to the level it was a century ago when taking the train got you some place other than Front Street.

Could we run a light-rail transit system south from Guelph's downtown to Hamilton's? Could we run one from downtown Guelph to our northwest industrial park? The Guelph Historical Railway Association excursion train will operate on one of the two potential routes for that service, which exist today as freight lines.

Integrating a Guelph light-rail system with a Waterloo Region light-rail system can be accomplished along two existing, serviceable routes, one that goes from Guelph to Cambridge (that appears as a desired route on Guelph's walking-trail master plan, in spite of being an active railway line) and the other, which goes from Guelph to Kitchener. But even if we do not connect to Waterloo, we can provide meaningful service within Guelph city limits, connecting some of Guelph's residential areas to its industrial ones by rail.

While our train stations continue to be burned or torn down, whether through malice or planning, the opportunities along the railway lines that pass those stations remain untapped and unexplored. Take a moment out of your weekend, take the Guelph Historical Railway Association's excursion, and imagine the possibilities as you ride a passenger train around Guelph.

Now is the time, with more and more of us looking for work, to invest in improving the underused rail infrastructure that we already have, an approach that could truly make us stronger for when times improve.

Posted at 07:49 on March 30, 2009

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