How the election could throw the Liberals' high-speed rail plans off the track

Rival parties and regional organizations see an opportunity to alter the course of the $11 billion proposal for faster trains in southwest Ontario
By Mary Baxter - Published on May 29, 2018
A person waits for the train in London, Ontario
From worries of less frequent VIA Rail service to fears of farms being cut in half, many issues are keeping southwestern Ontarians from getting on board with high-speed rail. (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — Early on a recent Thursday morning, Lana Trick waited patiently at the airy London VIA station for her 7:35 train. Trick lives with her partner in London (he works at Western University) and commutes to her job as a psychology professor at the University of Guelph.

Trick has tried everything she can think of to ease the toll of the commute and get home every night. Nothing has worked. Traffic volume on the 401 highway, southern Ontario’s main artery, makes driving “a nightmare.” VIA’s limited schedule makes co-ordinating daily commutes difficult, and undertaking a pair of two-hour trips per a day “is exhausting.” So Trick has given up, and lives in Guelph for much of the week.

High-speed rail would be a life-changer for Trick and other commuters in southwestern Ontario. Introducing electric trains that can travel 250 kilometres an hour (and more), would shrink a two-hour-plus trip from London to Toronto to an hour and 10 minutes.

The Liberal government pledged in 2014 to introduce high-speed rail to the region. By 2016 it had proposed a 350-kilometre line with seven stations. It would be built in two stages: a Toronto to London segment by 2025, to be followed by an extension to Windsor with a target completion goal of 2031. Having been criticized for its slowness in introducing fast trains, the Liberal government backed its promise with an $11-billion allocation in its March budget to get the first phase under way. This year’s $19-million spend is earmarked for a preliminary environmental assessment.

Carlie Forsythe, Liberal candidate for Elgin—Middlesex—London, said high-speed rail would provide Ontarians with “a fast, efficient, cost-effective means of public transportation all around southwestern Ontario.” Forsythe was speaking at a May 16 all-candidates’ debate in Belmont, a community just east of London, where she laid out her party’s case: the line would drive economic growth, reduce commuters’ travel time, lower automobile operating costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce sprawl and congestion, especially along the 401.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath has said she supports high-speed rail, and PC leader Doug Ford has said he will study it. With the Ontario election campaign steaming ever nearer to the June 7 vote and with the Liberal Party trailing in third place, groups and communities in the region — some opposed to the project, others interested in alternative visions of transportation — spy an opportunity to expand the discussion around intercity train service and explore possibilities beyond the Liberals’ plan.

The major parties are listening: the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives now say they’ll pursue the environmental assessment — as long as the assessment also considers alternatives.

At the Belmont all-candidates’ meeting, Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative running for re-election in Elgin—Middlesex—London, said he wants to see the Ministry of Transportation explore alternative travel routes for the first phase. The current proposal, “would tear Thames Centre in half,” and many other rural areas if the line were extended to Windsor in the second phase, as planned.

Ernie Hardeman, a Progressive Conservative who is running for re-election in the riding of Oxford, has said he’d like to see the environmental assessment also explore the possibility of high-performance rail, an approach that would involve upgrades to existing tracks and adding more efficient rolling stock (that is, train cars) to potentially allow trains to run up to 200 kilometres an hour.

Amanda Stratton, the NDP candidate in Elgin—Middlesex—London, said her party wants the assessment to look at other routes and technologies, including high-performance rail — and to analyze transportation in the region to come up with an all-encompassing plan.

“We need to look at how we’re connecting all of southwestern Ontario now and support regional transit,” she said, “and also support transportation options besides [public] transit” — including boosting highway maintenance and making improvements along Highway 401.

The Green Party would be prepared to scrap high-speed rail altogether in favour of high-performance rail, said Bronagh Morgan, the candidate in Elgin—Middlesex—London. “We have to make sure we’re serving everybody, and not just the main centres.” The Greens want to see a more fulsome, co-ordinated plan to address urban transit, she added.

As the Liberals’ political rivals are finding out, meanwhile, there are marked differences in the questions and concerns that residents have at various places along the proposed route.

Kitchener-Waterloo: GO, high-speed, or both?

In the Waterloo Region, three municipal governments — Kitchener, Waterloo, and the Region of Waterloo — have endorsed a request to the provincial government to move ahead not only with high-speed rail but also all-day two-way GO transit service.

Berry Vrbanovic, the mayor of Kitchener, believes high speed is a priority in the region because reducing the congested 2½-hour drive between Toronto and Waterloo Region to a 48-minute train commute will help the innovation corridor “reach its true potential in terms of employment opportunities and as an economic engine for the province.”

Some local residents and businesses, however, worry that a focus on developing high-speed rail might scuttle plans to introduce all-day two-way GO Transit to Kitchener. “I’m a little worried that if we start saying high-speed rail is better than GO and nothing ever gets done, then 15 years from now we’re sitting here with no improvements,” said Chris Donnelly, a vice president at Manulife Financial who works in government and regulatory affairs.

Donnelly said all-day two-way GO transit — something the Liberals have promised for even longer than the party has supported high-speed rail — would provide the quickest relief to road congestion that has become so acute that it’s an issue when his company tries to attract workers to Waterloo from nearby areas such as Mississauga. “They’re [used to being] GO train commuters, and then they drive out here and think, ‘Jeez, I don’t want to do that every day,’ ” he said.

The Liberal government did boost GO service in the region in 2016, but only at peak hours — and it’s designed to accommodate workers travelling to Toronto, not the other way around. The better linkages achieved through more consistent GO service would not only mobilize workers but also attract investment to the Waterloo region’s rapidly expanding economy, Donnelly said. Moreover, GO service expansion is likely more achievable in the short term. High-speed rail “is probably going to take a little longer to figure out.”

All parties have pledged support for the improved GO service.

Windsor’s worries

Even in Windsor, where high-speed trains are expected to breathe new life into the local economy, people are uncomfortable with the current proposal.

“Having travelled on high-speed rail in many countries around the world, I see the benefit, I understand the benefit, and I know how great it can be to link different communities together,” said the city’s mayor, Drew Dilkens.

Dilkens worries that support for the project will fade after the first phase, and the second phase will never be built — meaning it won’t reach its endpoint in Windsor.

The mayor noted that a 2016 provincial report said phase two will proceed “as the demand for high-speed rail develops,” with a target date of 2031. Said Dilkens: “To us, that’s code speak for, ‘This will never happen.’ ”

Another concern is the fate of the city’s VIA Rail service once phase one begins operation. “We don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

For these reasons, Dilkens would rather see the whole plan implemented at once. He acknowledges the portion of rail from London to Windsor is likely to be unprofitable because of the large area it would cover and the relatively low levels of population it would serve. But most jurisdictions with high-speed rail operate it for reasons other than making money, he said. “In this case, linking communities and economic development, I hope.”

Concerns around London

In rural and small-town communities between Kitchener and London, residents won’t be served by high-speed rail on their doorstep, and to date, this area has mounted the greatest opposition to the project. Commuters fear they’ll experience negative impacts from the project (as TVO reported last year), and they want to see better regional transportation services.  

At least six municipalities, including Stratford and Oxford County, have asked the province to explore other options for improving train service in southwestern Ontario, including substituting high-performance rail along existing routes and increasing VIA service frequency.

In April, InterCityRail, a group that opposes the project, filled a rural hall to capacity on the outskirts of London as farmers and other rural residents listed concerns about high-speed rail. These included the price tag, the removal of prime agricultural land from production, the possibility of severing farms and roads, and fear that high-speed rail will discourage VIA from continuing its regional rail service.

In London proper, one would expect reaction to the high-speed proposal to be unanimously supportive. It isn’t, based on TVO’s recent conversations with commuters.

Londoner Karen Campbell called high-speed rail a “fabulous” idea — and then said the current service is fine for the few times a month she has to commute to Toronto for work. “It beats driving.”

Two women said they hadn’t thought about the possibility.

For his part, Jake Mota can’t wait for high speed. He grew up in London and works in the tech industry in Kitchener. He knows the project will displace a few homes. That’s the cost of progress, he said. He won’t be affected by the construction and the service would benefit him.

“I’m like a good portion of Canadians that it will benefit, so I’m all for it.”

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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