Building the corridor: what all-day GO service means for Toronto and Waterloo

By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 16, 2016
Leaders in Kitchener-Waterloo have been advocating for all-day, two-way GO service between the region and Toronto for a number of years.

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The future of Toronto is in Waterloo Region. At least, that’s the hope for businesses in both the province’s political and technology capitals, which are looking to tie themselves closer together.

That vision took a step forward this week as the province announced an “agreement in principle” with CN Rail to build a new freight corridor that would allow cargo-hauling trains to be moved off the tracks between Union Station in downtown Toronto and the Kitchener GO train station.

The government is also increasing the frequency of GO trains between the two cities in the interim, though it will be some time before the government can promise the all-day, two-way service enjoyed on other corridors where Metrolinx owns the entire span—2024, the government hopes.

“This means we’ll be able to provide GO train service to meet the demand in the region, and for all the communities all along the corridor,” said Steven Del Duca, at the announcement. “Today’s news means more trains, more times of the day, in both directions will be a reality.”

This is separate from the “Missing Link” that Mississauga and Milton have been advocating, but solves the same problem: humans in a hurry competing with freight-carrying rail companies.

The move to improve service between the two cities is welcome for commuters who currently travel approximately two hours from Waterloo to Toronto, and also fits into the growing vision of a deeply-connected technology cluster between Toronto and the Waterloo Region.

Art Sinclair, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, says Tuesday’s announcement is “an important step.”

“As a business community, we’ve been actively making the case that this is a sound investment for all of Ontario. We’re trying to build Silicon Valley north,” Sinclair says. “Our case is rooted in the jobs that will be created, and ultimately the tax revenues that will flow to all levels of government from having this corridor.”

Leaders in Kitchener have been advocating for all-day, two-way service between the region and Toronto since the middle of the last decade, and an updated 2015 report made the case: with more than 200,000 workers in rapidly growing technology businesses, the combined economic weight of the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is comparable to the San Francisco-San Jose corridor in California (at just under 400,000 workers.)

Or, as Premier Kathleen Wynne put it Tuesday: “2,200 start-ups in the last five years alone—more than one new start up a day. That’s second only to Silicon Valley.”

The corridor would also link two universities and Conestoga College in Kitchener-Waterloo to Guelph University and the post-secondary institutions in downtown Toronto.  That means that students at schools such as the University of Waterloo could potentially study in the region while taking co-op positions in Toronto, or vice-versa: unlike other cities in Toronto’s orbit, Waterloo sees more commuters flow in from Toronto than out. The regional government estimates a net inflow of about 10,000 commuters every day from Toronto.

The corridor vision doesn’t just have adherents at Queen’s Park and Waterloo Region. Toronto Mayor John Tory became a supporter earlier this year, and welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.

GO service is just one aspect of Waterloo Region’s plan, and it’s meant to co-exist with the region’s LRT plan and its controls on sprawl. While Waterloo has been an island of stability in a region where other cities (Toronto, Hamilton, and Brampton) have been more unpredictable in their transit planning, it’s still a few election cycles between now and 2024.

It’s always possible that the hiccups that come from big projects could sour regional voters on the transit-centred planning that includes the GO rail service. Leaders partly acknowledged that at Tuesday’s event: Wynne’s arrival via GO train was 20 minutes late, and local leaders apologized to anyone in the audience delayed by the LRT construction that will snarl Kitchener traffic this summer.

Sinclair says he doesn’t think voters will turn against the plan entirely just because of some bad traffic. He’s also not worried about one possible unintended consequence of improved rail connections: businesses moving from Kitchener to the already-larger technology cluster in Toronto, and turning Waterloo Region into something closer to a bedroom community.

“The reality is that the old model of one spouse working isn’t realistic anymore. When you’ve got two professionals in a family, it’s not always possible for both to find work in the same place. The corridor gives them that choice. One can work and live in Waterloo while the other commutes to Toronto,” Sinclair says.

Sinclair also says it’s important not to focus solely on the two edges of the corridor: connections with businesses and schools in Guelph and Brampton along the same rail line will be increasingly important.

But before any of that can happen, the trains need to start running on time.

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