High-speed rail is a win for cities. But who loses?

Urban commuters are excited about the province’s high-speed rail project — but is it too much of a burden on rural communities?
By Mary Baxter - Published on September 6, 2017
Oxford County residents worry that high-speed trains such as this one in France could harm the rural landscape. (Lambert M/Abaca Press)

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Every fall, Steven Veldman and two of his three sons harvest grain for their dairy herd at a farm near Embro, a hamlet 15 minutes north of Ingersoll, in Oxford County. The family hopes to build another dairy barn closer to the fields so the sons can split up the herd and run their own operations while sharing equipment.

But the provincial government’s plan to build high-speed rail across southwestern Ontario could get in the way. One proposed route would separate the Veldmans’ existing dairy barn from the fields and the future barn site. Another would occupy a hydro corridor five kilometres south of the family farm.

In either case, the barriers necessary to protect the railway would block the quiet country roads by his farm — which could result in the family having to take bulky, slow-moving farm equipment on lengthy and even dangerous detours along busy regional roads just to complete everyday tasks.

“It would have a big effect on us economically,” says Veldman.

While the province envisioned their high-speed rail plans as a boon to urbanites in southwestern Ontario, rural residents increasingly see them as a burden.

Jim Muxworthy, who owns a farm near Tavistock (about 40 kilometres west of Waterloo), has also seen a proposed route that would divide his farm property. So he and his wife, Shirley, called a handful of neighbours to a meeting in mid-August to discuss the rail project. Thirty people showed up. A week later, nearly 200 attended an information session the meeting goers held on a neighbour’s farm. “It [the number of people expressing concern] just mushroomed,” Jim Muxworthy says.

Muxworthy also questions what it would mean for school buses and emergency responders. “Oh my goodness, if they cut these roads all off, it’s just going to be chaos,” he says.

Bob Nichols, a Ministry of Transportation spokesperson, says by email that work on the project is in initial stages. It “will be further refined as we go through the environmental assessment approvals and preliminary design. Additional design work, route and service planning, modelling, studies, and stakeholder engagement will need to be undertaken in which items such as these will be identified.” 

For years now, the Liberal government has talked about improving regional connectivity with high-speed rail, which exists nowhere else in Canada. Trains with average speeds of 250 kilometres per hour could condense the two-hour-plus commute between London and Toronto down to just 70 minutes. The province estimates that by 2041, as many as 10 million travellers per year could use the service and take five million cars off of the road.

Cities slated to have stops along the line, including London and Windsor, have responded enthusiastically to the idea. In July, London’s city council endorsed the province’s decision to move ahead with preliminary design work, including a $15 million environmental assessment. As part of that assessment, the government will consult Indigenous communities, property owners, federal and provincial regulatory agencies, municipalities, and members of the public, Nichols writes.

“It will be an economic and transportation game-changer for the city of London and southwestern Ontario,” Edward Soldo, the city’s director of roads and transportation, writes in an email. He says the service will ease highway congestion, reduce air pollution, cut shipment times, and offer consumers “the speed and comfort required to make non-automobile travel a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and viable transportation choice.”

Still, wherever the line goes, it will end up crossing private property. “We experienced this 60 years ago when we put the 401 in,” says David Mayberry, Oxford County warden. “It’s not like a hydro corridor where you can actually farm underneath it and you work around the towers. In this case, you’re stopped dead in your tracks when you get to the tracks because they’re not going to allow level crossings.”

Mayberry believes it’s more important for the government to improve existing services than build high-speed rail — a point of view that All Aboard St. Marys, a group attempting to preserve and improve train service to that town, heartily endorses. (The government’s high-speed rail plan doesn’t include stops in St. Marys or Woodstock.)

One group member, Greg Gormick, a rail consultant who’s advised Oxford County, says the money it’ll take to build high-speed rail would be enough to improve and increase the speed of service on the region’s two existing passenger rail lines. “You can buy locomotives and rolling stock right now off the shelf in the United States that are capable of providing 125-mile-per-hour service,” he says. (Preliminary estimates peg the cost of building the 350-kilometre line at $55 million to $149 million per kilometre.)

In a December 2016 report prepared for the province, David Collenette, special advisor for high speed rail, noted that existing lines used for passenger service are owned by Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway and the freight companies prioritize freight trains over passenger service. “When various services share track, capacity challenges, and operational constraints are created for all of them, including for train schedules and the speeds trains can achieve,” Collenette wrote. The report recommends that the province run the service on GO rail service infrastructure (some already built and some yet to be built) from Toronto to Kitchener but build a dedicated line to London. It also proposes running a track beside the CN line between London and Chatham and build tracks on a CP corridor from Chatham to Windsor.

Muxworthy and Veldman are working on next steps. Veldman has approached the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to represent the group’s concerns to the provincial government and look for solutions. “We don’t want to just be critical and not come up with other ideas,” he says, noting that he’d like to see the province explore running the line beside the 401 or within existing rail corridors.

You can’t just whine about your own farm, adds Muxworthy: “We’d like to be a group, and we’d like to inform the government, the people who are working on this” about the problems the new rail could pose to some rural communities.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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