Transport Action Ontario board member Ken Westcar recently published an op-ed article in the London Free Press, advocating for significant, short-term improvements to existing passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario, rather than solely studying a high-speed rail service. The article in its original text is posted below:

London Free Press
OPINION
Upgrades would outpace high-speed rail
Ken Westcar, Special to Postmedia Network
Friday, January 6, 2017

Comedian Rick Mercer once quipped that Canada is a leader in high-speed rail reports. He was referring to the fact that numerous, expensive studies have been done by federal and provincial government agencies, since the 1970s, and all gather dust while not one metre of track has been laid. In early 2015 the Province of Ontario commissioned a further study of a possible high-speed rail (HSR) project connecting downtown Toronto to Kitchener, London and eventually Windsor.

Much credibility was added by the appointment of ex-federal Liberal transport minister David Collenette who has since managed a stakeholder consultation process that was scheduled to culminate in the release of a report in November 2016. It’s now expected in 2017. Probing the concept of sleek and speedy passenger rail services captured the futuristic interest of several communities along the proposed route and, possibly, caused them to lose focus on advocating for significant, shorter-term improvement to existing services. Likely, it has pushed the possibility of badly needed intercity public transportation improvements in southwestern Ontario well beyond 2020 as VIA Rail continues to struggle with outdated equipment and Highway 401 suffers chronic congestion and frequent closure.

It’s now clear that the Wynne government asked the wrong question of David Collenette and his team. Instead of prescribing the HSR solution, the province should have been asking what is wrong with the system (which isn’t a system) and how we go about fixing it on a staged basis that involves all the current players and assets. If HSR wound up being part of a long-range vision, fine. But HSR will not fix the basic problems we experience in southwestern Ontario or anywhere else in Canada. The solutions are truly multi-modal and they must be undertaken in a step-by-step fashion that is driven by a cooperatively-crafted master plan. You can only create a master plan when all the players are talking to each other and they come to understand the problems each is facing, as well as the opportunities for cooperation and coordination.

It’s not difficult to understand the negative consequences of extremely limited mobility options in southwestern Ontario as it attempts the transition from its traditional economic base to one embracing advanced manufacturing, innovation, information technology and greater productivity. At the same time, social inclusion, environmental sustainability and the broadest possible economic opportunities for its people remain paramount. But growing Highway 401 constraints are proof that a single transportation mode can kneecap the best of regional plans. Faith in autonomous vehicles solving the region’s transportation problems may have its place, but only as part of a robust, multi-modal solution.

Passenger rail service between Toronto, Kitchener, Stratford, and London epitomize what’s wrong with David Collenette’s brief from the Province of Ontario. VIA’s punctuality and frequency along this entire route are abysmal. At the same time Metrolinx plans to intensify GO train service between Toronto and Kitchener that will poach more passengers and track capacity from VIA. West of Kitchener the track, various sections of which are owned and operated by several entities, continues to deteriorate. VIA therefore faces the perfect storm of passenger loss and decrepit infrastructure, much to the annoyance of Stratford and St. Marys who see improved passenger rail services as vital to their economic future.

One would therefore assume that all stakeholders on this route, including the federal and provincial governments, would collaborate on how best to develop this asset to meet the demands of both passengers and freight. After all, it’s much cheaper to upgrade trackage and extend existing services than build new and it can be delivered much faster. Had Collenette’s team been tasked with finding a solution to this and other inter-community travel inhibitors in southwestern Ontario, while studying how future high-speed rail might add further utility, it’s more likely that the short to medium term mobility needs of the region could be met quite quickly and at moderate cost. It’s precisely what’s happening in the USA and it should happen here.

Probably, Collenette’s report will show high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor difficult to construct and, based on the European experience, fiendishly expensive. That it has a place in many modern economies is without doubt. But the Province should have avoided the sole pursuit of a distant transportation dream by asking a much broader question. Simply speaking, it is how do we invest taxpayer money to get an in-depth understanding of the overall southwestern Ontario mobility problem, seek a forward-thinking, best-value solution and then act on it in a coordinated, incremental and affordable way? Most likely this vital question will remain unanswered while yet another high-speed rail report gets consigned to the annals of history.

Ken Westcar is an independent observer and writer on public transportation policy.

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