End of the line: Why Ontario will regret ripping up this rail corridor

OPINION: The Orangeville-Brampton Railway could have served as a vital transportation link for a growing region
By Brian Doucet and Sean Marshall - Published on Dec 20, 2021
The last freight train left Orangeville on December 17, marking the end of service on the line (Brian Doucet)

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There’s a plaque outside downtown Orangeville proudly celebrating how, on September 30, 2000, the town purchased a railway from Canadian Pacific, thereby saving it from abandonment. Named the Orangeville-Brampton Railway, the route runs south through Caledon and Brampton to Streetsville, where it connects with CP’s main line.

Most recently, the line only carried freight, but a popular tourist railway operated from 2011 to 2018. One can imagine a future where it is a valuable passenger route connecting fast-growing communities to Toronto.

The plaque will need to be updated: on December 17, the last freight train left Orangeville, marking the end of train service. The tracks will be ripped up shortly. Without quick intervention by the province, this useful corridor will be lost forever. 

It’s safe to assume that most Ontarians are unaware of the Orangeville-Brampton Railway, let alone its demise. But transportation issues northwest of Toronto will be front and centre in the upcoming provincial election.

a train crosses a brdige
The railway lost money for the municipality, but that is a narrow way of looking at transportation infrastructure. (Brian Doucet)

On November 10, Premier Doug Ford gave a press conference in Caledon. He stood in front of construction equipment and a sign boasting “Future site of Highway 413,” promising to build the controversial project. We still do not know how much this will cost Ontarians, but decades of research have demonstrated it will not solve traffic problems — and will create more automobile-dependent communities. The Orangeville-Brampton Railway could have hosted a valuable alternative for passenger and freight traffic.

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 Until recently, five manufacturers relied on the railway: two in Brampton and three in Orangeville. This saves roughly 1,300 trucks a year from using local roads. While industry is not growing, Orangeville’s population is. So too is neighbouring Dufferin Country. They are increasingly popular with people priced out of the GTA who ‘drive until they qualify’ for a mortgage they can afford. Caledon is projected to gain 300,000 new residents and 125,000 new jobs by 2051. 

Southern Ontario used to be lined with railway routes connecting towns and villages. Abandonment is not only a matter of distant history; many routes closed within the last 40 years. The rail line to Collingwood, for example, a community popular with tourists, commuters, and retirees, was abandoned in 2011. When these lines are lost, gone with them is untapped potential to deal with present and future challenges. Abandoning railway lines should be the last thing we do in the climate change era.

Instead, the land is often converted to walking and cycling trails, an idea that has been touted for the Orangeville-Brampton Railway. But these rail trails are not simple to construct. Rights of way are often sold in pieces, leading to fragmented routes, and it can be difficult (and expensive) to turn a railway bridge into a structure that is suitable for walkers or cyclists.

Some locally owned railways have been successful, including the spur from Kitchener to Elmira. It is owned by the Region of Waterloo, runs entirely within its jurisdiction, and serves a major employer in Elmira. The City of Ottawa purchased a section of a recently abandoned CN line to preserve the corridor for future transit use, It also maintains another ex-CN line to serve industry in nearby Arnprior. The Guelph Junction Railway has been owned by the City of Guelph since 1908. 

But Orangeville is a much smaller community, and local politicians regularly note how the railway is a money loser. Because it mostly runs in other jurisdictions, the town paid property taxes to Caledon, Brampton, and Mississauga. This contributed to a deficit of roughly $450,000 a year, a fact regularly cited as the reason to discontinue the line. 

This is a very narrow way of looking at transportation infrastructure. Maintaining roads also costs cities money. Providing the infrastructure for people and goods to move around is one of the key roles of local, regional, and provincial governments. In the short-term, abandoning this railway may save Orangeville residents around 1.5 per cent on their property tax bill. In the long run, the town loses a vital transportation link. 

Bulk goods previously hauled direct to Orangeville’s industries will have to be trucked on county and provincial roads in Wellington and Peel. These routes are already busy with heavy gravel trucks from nearby quarries, not to mention increasing commuter traffic to the GTA from expanding cities and towns.

Perhaps a small town should not fund a regional railway. Instead, this kind of transportation planning and management needs to be coordinated by the provincial government. Metrolinx is tasked with long-term and strategic transportation planning within southern Ontario. The Orangeville-Brampton Railway is an ideal route for it to acquire. It may not be used today, tomorrow, or even in the next decade, but it’s hard to deny the value of a rail corridor connecting this growing part of the province.

In an era of climate change, we need to preserve existing rail routes and stop building new highways, rather than the other way around. The provincial government needs to have the long-term vision to create the kind of future that provides sustainable transportation choices for passengers and freight, instead of a future where we are stuck in cars and trucks.

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