This article by TAO board member Ken Westcar and resident of Woodstock ON appeared in the London Free Press in somewhat edited form on June 9, 2017 under the title “Westcar: Upgrading passenger rail makes most sense.”
Although there are many critics of the province’s Toronto to Windsor high-speed rail plan it has finally delivered a message that the Wynne government is no longer in denial on public transportation in southwestern Ontario. They are now on the hook to do something about it rather than pushing expanded 400-series highways and futuristic automotive technologies as catch-all solutions. Meanwhile federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau sits uncomfortably on the VIA Rail file in Ottawa hoping either that it will go away entirely or be picked up partially or wholly by the private sector. Not a chance!
The last five years have produced calls from many municipalities and regions for transportation alternatives. Niagara, Peterborough, communities in Northern Ontario and now Orangeville are calling for the reinstatement of passenger trains to sustain their local economies, bypass congested and unreliable roads and help mitigate climate change. Niagara improvements are underway but there’s local frustration in the mixed messages coming from Metrolinx on completion dates primarily due to a plan to build the entire system in one go rather than taking a progressive approach and getting at least some commuter trains on the tracks now to replace VIA services cancelled in 2012.
Vote-buying tactics or not, the province habitually kicks the can down the road by insisting every announced public transportation investment must be gold-plated. Such are their current high-speed rail intentions and those of GO train services to Niagara. But the stark reality is that the average traveller neither wants to pay for gold nor wait another decade for a viable alternative to congested highways.
What would better satisfy most travellers outside the GTHA is better equipment and greater frequency on existing train services and the reinstatement of those lost over the past fifteen years or so. Upgrading existing rail infrastructure and more frequent, modern trains would speed-up journey times and satisfy the majority of travellers who just want a decent and affordable ride. What they don’t need are expensive palatial stations and bullet-style trains that drive up ticket prices, cut large swaths through communities, take decades to deliver and eliminate existing rail service to some town and cities.
While municipal leaders have made many constructive suggestions to the provincial government they have usually been dismissed, not because they don’t make sense, but often because they fail to align with party political objectives. And, despite claims to contrary, there seems to be no seriously constructive dialogue between the province and Ottawa on passenger rail. This puts existing passenger train services through southwestern Ontario at risk and is extremely irresponsible given VIA Rail’s announcement that their clapped-out fleet will not meet current service schedules beyond 2020. If this is true we are now past the point of no return on train services west of Aldershot and Kitchener.
Canada has the internal expertise to upgrade existing rail infrastructure and benefit from the high-paying jobs it would create over the longer term. But we have no experience in designing and building true high-speed lines and would need to rely on foreigners to do this. Perhaps we could dig the trenches and pour concrete but billions of dollar’s worth of high value-added work would need to be imported, possibly from Europe or, more likely, China.
A policy of passenger rail upgrading could see significant results in five years or less assuming existing services doesn’t collapse entirely in the meantime. Under the purview of provincial Premier John Robarts and then CN president Donald Gordon it took just two years to make GO trains a reality from scratch in the late 1960’s and, for the past 50 years, they have since delivered immeasurable value to travellers, the GTHA economy and taxpayers alike. This is the strategy needed now for southwestern Ontario. Let’s sideline the stalling tactics of glitzy political dreams and get on with improving what we already have.
Ken Westcar, Woodstock ON, June 1, 2017
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