Are the Tories going to take a second look at high-speed rail?

ANALYSIS: Rural communities in southwestern Ontario want the PCs to rethink a plan to build high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor. A recent FOI disclosure may lay the groundwork for that, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on August 31, 2018
Transportation Minister John Yakabuski says that the government is aware of the concerns rural communities have about high-speed rail. (Kevin Van Paassen/Globe and Mail)

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The new Progressive Conservative government dealt with a number of priorities as it bowled its way through a summer session, but it won’t be providing answers to some longer-term policy questions until later in the year. A big one for communities in southwestern Ontario: Will the new government halt the high-speed-rail plan it inherited from the Liberals?

At the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa last week, Transportation Minister John Yakabuski was asked about the government’s plans; he told the assembled municipal officials that the government was listening to them, but he offered few specifics.

“We are certainly cognizant of the concerns of those communities,” he said. “We’ll be taking all of those into consideration.”

Yakabuski’s office told TVO.org this week that HSR planning is “in the early stages.”

“As the planning moves forward, decisions for a high speed rail service will be informed by the information collected through environmental studies and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including rural and farming communities,” Yakabuski’s press secretary Justine Lewkowicz wrote in an email. “Our final decision will be based on what is best for the people of Ontario.”

It’s “consultations with rural and farming communities” that critics say were missing from the plan the Liberals were working on prior to their June 7 defeat.

Ken Westcar lives in Woodstock and is a member of the steering committee for InterCityRail, a group that’s advocating for a different vision of rail transit in the province’s southwest: locally oriented trains that wouldn’t zip through the landscape as quickly but would leave more of it intact for the farmers who currently live there. The group has grabbed the attention of a number of leaders in the southwest, including some Tories — such as Natural Resources Minister Jeff Yurek and Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs Minister Ernie Hardeman — who now sit in cabinet.  

“This was a politically concocted project,” says Westcar, “with no basis in evidence whatsoever.”

Westcar says that high-speed rail simply wouldn’t address the issues facing southwestern Ontario, but that the Liberals weren’t willing to consider alternatives to their project (which was first promised in 2014, shortly before the election that saw the Liberals wiped out in Windsor).

“The whole corridor, from Kitchener to Windsor, only has 1.2 million people in cities that would have access to high-speed rail … that’s way short of the numbers that high-speed rail is usually predicated on,” Westcar says. “It might work in the future, but right now, enhanced Via Rail would work quite nicely.”

InterCityRail filed a Freedom of Information request in April 2018 in which it asked the government to produce documents related both to technical matters, such as trainset choice and locomotive speeds, and to more fundamental issues, such as whether rural communities were excluded from consultations and whether the government had considered the possible impacts on farm owners.

The results, which InterCityRail published online earlier this month, are a mixed bag. Some requests didn’t produce any documents whatsoever, while others produced documents that are, at best, only indirectly related to the questions asked. That’s not unusual, but there’s also nothing in the disclosures that proves rural critics of the plan were wrong to think their concerns had gone unheard.

The Tories have already made some moves on the HSR file: earlier this summer, they removed former MP David Collenette as head of the planning advisory board charged with completing the environmental assessment for the project.

That EA, expected to cost $19.1 million, was the only part of the project the Liberals had allocated money to — although they included a high-profile $11 billion pledge in the spring 2018 budget.

But environmental assessments generally weigh a proposed project against at least one other alternative (at minimum, there’s usually a comparison to a “do nothing” option).

And this is what Westcar and InterCityRail want: to see the proposed HSR plan compared fairly and objectively with their preferred system. Which would carry more riders? For how much money? Which would take more cars off the 401? In short, which better stands up to scrutiny?

For now, the Tories don’t need to take a side. If they decided to build such a comparison into the environmental assessment, they’d effectively restart the clock on the project: a definitive report wouldn’t be available until late 2019 or early 2020.

If it were to confirm that high-speed rail is the best option for the Toronto-Windsor corridor, the Tories could say they’d done their due diligence. If it instead proved that the critics had been right all along, the Tories would be able to point to it as yet another example of a Liberal mistake they’ll be able to put right. 

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