Transport Action Ontario’s annual general meeting (AGM) was held in Toronto on April 15, 2023 in a hybrid format. The meeting followed a pro-forma agenda, including Treasurer’s report and election of officers and directors for the upcoming year.
The major part of the meeting was devoted to the President’s report, which summarized the extensive advocacy work undertaken by the organization all across the Province over the past 12 months. In total, work was conducted on about 30 items, with some successes and good progress on others.
For members and subscribers who were unable to attend the AGM, the President’s Report is attached as a FYI.
On August 30, 2022, funding was announced for much-needed repairs to several VIA Rail stations in Southwestern Ontario. Unfortunately, Woodstock was not one of the stations named for repairs, despite being a designated heritage station in in urgent need of attention.
Originally built in 1885 by the Grand Trunk Railway, the station was transferred to VIA Rail ownership in 1986, and extensively renovated in 1992. The station received a “City Beautiful” award in 2000, and up until the cuts of 2012 the station was staffed and well cared for, including repainting in the original green and white scheme of the Grand Trunk, which made it a beautiful and inviting gateway to the city.
Sadly, little work has been done on the exterior of the building since 2012. The condition of the station has deteriorated rapidly over the last few winters, once degraded paint allowed frost and salt to attack the underlying brickwork and timber. What could have been a job for a few buckets of fresh paint is now going to be rather expensive, and this will become exponentially worse the longer the station is left unloved. Tragically, it has also been largely abandoned by the City of Woodstock and the County of Oxford when it should be an attractive portal for commuters and visitors.
While we recognise that, when the federal government does not fully fund VIA Rail’s requests for state of good repair budget appropriations, rolling stock and safety critical items must be prioritized, not fully funding station maintenance is a false economy on the part of the federal treasury that cost taxpayers a lot more in the medium term, while also deterring passengers.
Thankfully, not everything has been neglected. The waiting area inside the station has been recently repainted, together with updates to provide improved washroom accessibility. However, the digital display with train schedule information is positioned so that it can only be seen from outside the station door, and it cannot be read in daylight. The information board outside the station has the printed schedule covered over, possibly a measure taken during the pandemic. Signage inside or outside the station providing information on Woodstock Transit, Middlesex County Connect bus services and T:GO inter-community transit to Tillsonburg is non-existent, even though these routes were consciously designed by municipal leaders in the region to link up with rail.
There is no means of purchasing a ticket either, since the automated kiosks that were installed after the stations were de-staffed in 2012 have all been withdrawn, due to their payment processing systems becoming obsolete.
There is also a local map on display inside the station, which is helpful, because all stations should at least offer visitors some basic local information, but it dates back to 1999 so it is due for an update. The population of the city has grown by 25% since then, but its train service has not.
Meanwhile, the station flowerbeds have also been rebuilt with brick replacing timber, which seems like a lower priority than the masonry of the station itself, but this may have been an affordable project to improve the customer experience at the station that could be squeezed into the crown corporation’s severely constrained budget during the pandemic.
In addition to calling for repairs to this station, Transport Action is campaigning for increased train service frequency across southwestern Ontario, including in the short term the reinstatement of trains 82 and 83 between London and Toronto in the morning and evening, and for the existing afternoon train 76 from Windsor to Toronto call at Woodstock, providing an option for early evening arrival in Toronto.
On August 30, 2022 Federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra announced a one-year study by a 3rd party advisor on enhancing passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario (SWO). The advisor will examine both near-term improvements and longer-term integration into High Frequency Rail. While this news was welcomed, our concern is that there have already been numerous studies on SWO passenger rail, and this latest study means that additional services are still years away. See our post on the Transport Action Canada website for more details.
One September 26, representatives from Transport Action Ontario (TAO) and Transport Action Canada (TAC) met with senior staff at Transport Canada to review the scope of the advisor’s work. The procurement document was posted on the buyandsell.gc.ca website on September 9, and can be viewed by searching for “T8080-220058”.
We learned that
Advisor will examine previous studies and welcomes additional input
Advisor will consult with Metrolinx to understand their plans for SWO and any track access issues
Advisor will largely focus on the South Main Line (Toronto – Brantford – London – Windsor) and London-Sarnia, recognizing provincial interest in the North Main Line (Toronto – Kitchener – London)
Advisor will contract with CN for it to assess what infrastructure investments are needed for 2-3 service enhancement scenarios
Advisor will develop demand forecasts, as that is needed for Business Case development
Advisor will be made aware of Amtrak Chicago – Toronto interest
Transport Action will continue to engage with Transport Canada staff on this issue. We have sent them material from TAO’s submissions to the province’s SWO Transportation Task Force that lists lower cost infrastructure improvement ideas. We also anticipate participating in a stakeholder roundtable to be held in early 2023.
Masonry repairs should soon be getting underway at the Chatham VIA Rail station, together with other repairs to the stations in Sarnia, London and Brantford.
Speaking in Windsor on August 30, 2022 to announce the government’s intent to appoint an external consultant to study improvements to passenger rail services in SW Ontario, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra confirmed that part of the $42.8 million of new funding over fours years announced in the spring budget would be allocated to repairs at these stations.
The frost and salt damage to the Chatham station’s brickwork is an issue that Transport Action brought to the attention of VIA Rail in 2019, and sadly the deterioration of the station accelerated significantly in the intervening winters. We have also highlighted the need to renew the flaking paint on the Woodstock station building before that cosmetic damage allows water penetration and costly masonry damage.
Chatham station, built in 1879 and Woodstock, built in 1885, both by the Great Western Railway, are designated heritage stations, as in Sarnia, opened in 1891 by the Grand Trunk together with the inauguration of the first St. Clair River Tunnel. Treasury Board does a disservice to passengers and taxpayers if it does not allow VIA Rail to fully fund station maintenance each year, because maintenance deficits for heritage structures like these grows exponentially if left unaddressed.
Over the past decade, VIA Rail has invested in repairs and upgrades to the London station; carried out an interior refit to provide fully accessible washrooms in Chatham; and undertaken a restoration of the Sarnia station building.
More photos of the maintenance deficit at Chatham station:
On June 15, the Canadian Club of London hosted a one-hour virtual fireside chat between VIA Rail’s acting CEO Martin Landry, and London Mayor Ed Holder. Transport Action Ontario (TAO) listened in and also submitted questions to be answered later by VIA Rail. Our colleagues at Rail Advocacy in Lambton also attended.
There were few surprises in Landry’s remarks. London is VIA’s 4th busiest station and VIA has invested $11M in it since 2019. London is in a sweet spot for population density and distances. Other remarks included:
VIA recognizes that not all train service has been restored to pre-pandemic levels, including Trains 82/83 round trip through Brantford and Trains 85/88 through Stratford.
Most of VIA’s ridership resumption is leisure travelers. They are hoping for more business travel increase in the Fall when more train frequencies are planned.
The new fleet enters into service in Fall 2022 and the new reservation system will launch early 2023.
VIA is working with Metrolinx and CN on service improvements in southwestern Ontario. In contrast to Toronto-Quebec City corridor, there are no opportunities for a dedicated right-of-way, hence VIA must leverage current infrastructure with the track owners. VIA needs competitive travel speeds versus automobiles and reliable on-time performance.
VIA wants to transform London into a regional hub, which would therefore provide more scheduling options for all of southwestern Ontario
VIA is also aware of US interest on a Toronto-Chicago route, and are collaborating with Amtrak
In response to a question about a late night departure from Toronto to accommodate sports/theatre attendees, Landry indicated that new frequencies would have to be provided by the track owners.
Mayor Holder also made some interesting remarks:
As chair of the Southwestern Ontario Transportation Task Force, and working closely with other regional mayors such as Mayor Bradley(Sarnia), he is very aware that passenger rail is a huge issue in the region.
London is the fastest growing Canadian city east of British Columbia.
In summary, the chat was a reaffirmation of information already out there and promised. TAO will continue to vigorously advocate for passenger rail improvements in southwestern Ontario.
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