Woodstock VIA Rail station in summer 2023, with scaffolding in place for brickwork cleaning.
Apr 25

Delegation on Passenger Rail to Oxford County Council

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Southwestern Ontario

Transport Action Ontario secretary, Ken Westcar, delegated to Oxford County’s council meeting on April 24, 2024 in support of elements of their 2023 Transportation Master Plan that included VIA Rail service improvements through Woodstock and Ingersoll.

Ken’s peer-reviewed PowerPoint presentation on behalf of Transport Action Ontario (TAO) was submitted in advance of the delegation and it was clear from the interest and responses that county councillors and the warden had studied it thoroughly in advance of the meeting.

VIA Train 76 stop reinstatement.

The presentation emphasised the need for a letter from Oxford County Council to Mario Péloquin, VIA Rail CEO, requesting a Woodstock stop for London to Toronto VIA Train 76 to partially fill a nearly nine-hour afternoon service gap from both Woodstock and Ingersoll. There was consensus that this gap severely disincentivizes VIA usage by Oxford County residents and visitors and acted as a brake on economic and community progress and wellness due to the increasingly congested and unreliable Highways 401/403 being the default mobility option.

Given that Train 76 could be one element of the proposed Toronto-Chicago Amtrak/VIA international service, it was agreed that Woodstock must be a stop to provide passenger rail access to and from the U.S. Mid West and beyond given that it is part of the industrial heartland of the U.S.A. and Canada where investment and talent are often shared.

Additional services and provincial cost-sharing.

Beyond the Train 76 stopping issue, discussion also extended to an aspirational “Train 74” service starting in either Windsor, Sarnia or Stratford, with early afternoon stops in Woodstock and Ingersoll, that would make VIA a very competitive option for travellers to/from Oxford County. Because of delegation time constraints, westbound services were not discussed.

The delegation dialog included the possibility of provincial financial support for these additional VIA services in southwestern Ontario (SWO) like state-supported Amtrak services in the USA. TAO’s position on this is that municipalities should engage with the province based on the very advantageous cost/benefit ratio available from incremental intensification of VIA services to the region. Given the provincial withdrawal of trial GO train services between London/Kitchener/Toronto, the concept has validity as the initial $160million originally committed by the province for this service and the ongoing provincial investment in maintenance and operations would likely meet or exceed the cost of the aspirational VIA Train 74 service.

Improved Woodstock VIA station aesthetics.

Further discussion took place on Woodstock VIA station aesthetics and its potential as a more attractive portal for Oxford County to reinforce its messaging on attractiveness to inward investment, quality of life and sustainability. Concern was expressed about the faded boxcar murals on the north side of the railway tracks and the freight traffic blocking effects when VIA trains are stopped on the primary east and westbound CN tracks. Solutions to these problems are possible and require further multi-party discussion.

Recommended actions.

While requesting a Woodstock stop for Train 76 is primarily an Oxford County task, TAO strongly recommended joint action by all VIA Rail-served communities (mayors, wardens and other stakeholders) to discuss with both the federal and provincial governments on affordable and readily achievable VIA schedule improvements. The primary drivers are regional population and industrial growth, rapidly changing demographics and over-reliance on capacity-constrained Highways 401/403.

A key element of this joint approach would be a southwestern Ontario (SWO) rail summit meeting staged in conjunction with the release of the ongoing federal and provincial studies to ensure that subsequent policies and investments are truly reflective of actual needs. TAO requested Oxford County’s support in arranging this after dialog with their peers in other affected municipalities. TAO would be a facilitator.

Conclusion.

Given the discussion intensity and positivity during the delegation, it is clear that the need for improved SWO passenger rail services is well recognised and of growing urgency to properly support the region’s economic and social prosperity and the constant drive for sustainability.

Photograph: Woodstock VIA Rail station in summer 2023, with scaffolding in place for brickwork cleaning.

Mar 27

Region of Waterloo Advances Cambridge GO Business Case

By Transport Action Ontario | Community Transit , Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News

Post by Adam Mills, Director, Transport Action Canada

Region of Waterloo transportation planning staff has been consulting with the public on the Region-proposed Cambridge GO expansion initial business case that is being developed and will be released in June, 2024.

The initial business case (or IBC) is the latest step made by the Region in advocating for a heavy rail expansion into Cambridge, and follows Metrolinx’s IBC framework. Planning staff were joined by their consultant Hatch, whose team is notably led by Mark Sutherland who developed the framework during his time at Metrolinx.

The IBC contains a further narrowing of ideal options, including the removal of double-tracking in favour of the more attainable and cost-effective plan of passing loops. This would mean frequencies of up to 20-30 minutes, with a travel time of 15 minutes. It is hard to see how this might not be able to be exploited to achieve 15 minute frequency in the future. Planners also noted that trackage and therefore frequency could be expanded in the future with relative ease.

The proposed service would still run between Guelph and Cambridge with a timed connection to the Kitchener line.

A positive revelation from the presentations is that CN seems to be open to the plan, and will not be a roadblock to the development of rail service between the two cities.

Station Location

Another narrowed option, one that seems to limit the possibility of future expansion, is the selection of Pinebush ION station as the Cambridge station location. The reasoning is clear: Pinebush GO provides for more transit oriented development opportunity compared to the other ION accessible station location at Delta station in downtown Galt. The options were presented in the 2022 phase 2 feasibility study, whose results were endorsed by council when received.

There are a few concerns that should be addressed when it comes to the station’s location. The prospect of future expansion was not considered in the 2022 study. Many questions were asked of the planners about how a dead-end station at Pinebush would allow for future rail expansions in Southern Ontario such as connections to Paris and Brantford, and even directly to Hamilton along the Highway 8 corridor. So far there don’t appear to be any answers. As this is an initial business case, options presented should not be overly limited. Perhaps if local politicians were told that the reason why transit can’t better serve a neighbourhood is because of aversion to development, they may be more open to support development in existing neighbourhoods and create more vibrant downtown areas that are easily served by regional transit. One could easily see how Metrolinx or the provincial government could give support to the project in exchange for allowed development changes in places asking for transit expansion.

Start with Buses

Another popular question at the 3 meetings was about what the Region is doing to secure a transit link of any sort between Cambridge and Guelph seeing as none exist currently. Planning staff indicated that it hadn’t really occurred to them in the planning of the project, but that a bus link in the meantime makes sense. Staff also said that the Region would approach Metrolinx to establish a bus service, and barring that, would be open to working with Guelph or even solo to ensure a link between the cities. Demand analyses conducted during the development of the project has shown that Cambridge-Guelph bus service would have healthy ridership.

The lack of consideration of bus options betrays an all-too-common rail and infrastructure bias that many of us are guilty of. Expanding mass transit is more than just new rail lines, it also includes expanding bus services across the province, the ridership of which can inform future needs and opportunities for higher-capacity forms of transit like regional rail. Many transportation planners suggest this ‘service first’ approach to transit development. One good example is the Kitchener-Toronto GO bus service which has helped to create large demand for Kitchener line expansion. It can be hard to justify a rail line when there is not already a transit service along the route.

Rolling Stock

The options for what might run along the new line aren’t limited at all, with planners preferring battery electric multiple units (BEMUs), but also noting the diesel multiple units (DMUs) or even standard GO bi-level cars would be possible for the service. Planners did note the desire for smaller trainsets to limit the cost of any new stations. The plan presented at the Guelph and virtual meetings suggested that maintenance would be done at Willowbrook yard in Etobicoke meaning any rolling stock would have to be able to make the journey down the Kitchener line for maintenance. At the third meeting, attendees noted that a planner said a maintenance facility along the line would be considered.

In a future ideal world, a one-seat ride would be enabled through a rolling stock option that can connect to Toronto-bound trains at Guelph providing a seamless Cambridge-Toronto trip. One can dream right?

Cost

A troubling part of this new advancement is the escalation of costs. Since the last study in 2022, projected costs for each option have ballooned by an average of 200%. The project planners were reluctant to make any statement regarding costs and did not directly address any questions regarding what has or could be done to limit costs and increase the possibility of the project being built.

Conclusion

While this effort is a hopeful attempt at advocacy by the Region, and contains some best practices such as EMUs and strategic infrastructure investments, the cost, limitations to future expansion (caused in part by the lack of densification in Cambridge), and lack of a pre-existing transit connection all could lead to reasons why Metrolinx and the province might not choose to fund this project. These are all concerns that can be addressed by Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo. What is clear is that more pressure on local politicians is needed. The plan needs support from Cambridge city council and the local MPPs who both happen to be in the PC caucus but have been absent on any Cambridge GO advocacy.

The consultation presentations are attached to this post.

A Region of Waterloo survey is open until April 5th

Feb 15

Rethinking Rail Discontinuance Policies – Rail Bank Needed

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News

The loss of rail corridors in Canada, due to service discontinuances by CN, CP or short line owners or operators continues to be a serious problem. Recent examples in Ontario include the Orangeville-Brampton Railway (OBRY) and potentially the Barrie-Collingwood Railway (BCRY). Loss of these corridors affects supply chain redundancy and potential future re-use for freight or passenger movement.

Transport Action Canada and Transport Action Ontario have written Federal Minister of Transport Rodriguez urging a rethink of Canada’s rail discontinuance policies, including establishing a formal rail ban, as in many US states.

Our letter can be viewed below.

Presto card readers. (Photograph by Wylie Poon via Flickr)
Feb 10

Fare Integration in Greater Toronto takes Giant Step Forward

By Transport Action Ontario | Latest News , Urban Transit

After years of campaigning, analysis and u-turns (see our post of August 27, 2019), public transit in Greater Toronto will take a giant step forward on February 26, 2024 when Ontario launches its “One Fare” program.

Transit riders will only pay once when connecting between the TTC, GO Transit and 4 regional transit systems – Brampton Transit, Durham Region Transit, MiWay, and York Region Transit. There is already a zero co-fare policy between GO Transit and other transit agencies in the 905, like Hamilton or Burlington, as well as a zero co-fare policy between individual 905 agencies. Therefore this means that the one fare program applies across the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. For example:

  • Trip starts on TTC, transfers to GO, then transfers back to TTC or 905 agency. Pay only the GO fare. Transfer valid within 3 hours of start of GO trip
  • Trip starts on YRT, transfers to TTC. Pay only the YRT fare. Transfers valid for 2 hours from start of YRT trip.

Passengers using credit or debit cards, including cards stored in digital wallets, will need to ensure they tap the same card for each segment of their journey to receive the co-fare discount.

This advance will remove major inequities such as at York University, where students from the 905 using local transit or GO buses were required to pay an additional TTC fare to travel 1 or 2 subway stops, or walk up to 15 minutes.

The program is expected to attract an additional 8 million riders per year, with an expected program cost is $90 million/year. This will be funded by Ontario and local systems will be reimbursed for foregone fare revenue.

The previous co-fare policy was introduced in 2018, providing a $1.50 discount on GO-TTC transfers, but this was ended in March 2020 because funding was not renewed by the provincial government.

Photo of Presto Card readers by Wylie Poon via Flickr

Hazel McCallion LRT Matheson station rendering (Metrolinx)
Feb 08

Major Changes and Unknowns with Hazel McCallion LRT

By Transport Action Ontario | Urban Transit

Ontario Minister of Transportation Prabmeet Sarkaria directed Metrolinx to “proceed with the development of an initial business plan along with a strategy to go to market for bids to build both the Mississauga loop and the Brampton extension” in a surprise letter on January 17, 2024.

As with all major transit projects in Ontario, the Hurontario-Main LRT project (now known as the Hazel McCallion LRT) has had its share of drama and twists and turns.  It was approved for funding in 2014 as an at-grade (“urban style”) LRT from Port Credit to Brampton GO along the centre of Huronontario and Main Streets.  It would be largely separated from traffic in its own right of way, except at road intersections and along a segment through Brampton Main St. South Heritage Area.

During 2015, mounting pressure from small but influential anti-LRT groups in Brampton induced its council to initiate a study on other options for Main St, including other routes and tunneling.  Staff found that all options other than a tunnel on Main St. had major technical issues.

The pressure paid off.  In October, 2015, despite staff and public support (including from Transport Action Ontario) for the surface plan, Brampton Council narrowly rejected the surface option.   In response, Metrolinx reduced the project scope to terminate the project at Gateway Station and reassigned the committed funding elsewhere.  Metrolinx also complied with Council’s wish in 2017 to relocate the terminus to the south side of Steeles Ave, in order to maintain the flexibility to use an alternate parallel corridor to Main St in the future.  ( despite identified technical issues!)  

In a complete turnaround, a new Brampton Council voted unanimously in 2018 to affirm a Main St. alignment, with the issue of surface vs. tunnel TBD.  It also requested that Gateway Station be relocated further north to better serve Brampton Transit bus riders. Unsurprisingly, Metrolinx rejected these changes, claiming that procurement was too far advanced to permit changes.

The scope of the project was further reduced in 2019 when the province directed that the expensive (potentially elevated or tunneled) 2.4 km loop at Mississauga City Centre/Square One Mall was to be replaced with a spur. 

A DBFOM (30 years) contract was awarded to Mobilinx Group in late 2019, with a value of $4.6B and a construction completion date of 2024.

During 2020 to 2023, Brampton continued to study the tunnel vs surface options for Main St and took both options to the 30% design stage.  Both options were found to be feasible.  The tunnel option provided better travel times, had less impact to Downtown Brampton and had higher ridership.  But the tunnel route would cost $2.8B versus surface at $933M and take 1-2 years longer to construct.  Council unanimously supported the tunnel option, pointing out that funding the tunnel option would bring Brampton in line with per capita transit investment in other GTHA cities.

Fast forward to January 17, 2024, and Minister Sarkaria’s letter asking Metrolinx to build both the Mississauga loop and the Brampton extension after all.  Metrolinx responded by February 5, as requested, but the plan has not yet been revealed to the public.   

While this is clearly very good news, there are many questions arising from this latest development that hopefully will be addressed in the Metrolinx plan:

  • Which Brampton option will be chosen (surface or tunnel)?
  • Will a second station on the north side of Steeles be included?
  • Will the Mississauga loop be at grade, elevated or tunneled?
  • Will the timing to open the nearly-completed Mobilinx section be affected?
  • What is the cost of these extensions?
  • Will the Transit Oriented Communities program be invoked as another funding tool?
  • Will the municipalities be required to fund portions of these extensions?
  • How much will the federal government contribute to these extensions?
  • What procurement strategy will be followed?

The McCallion LRT project has had many u-turns.  Vast amounts of money and time could have been saved by building the loop and Brampton portion from the start as originally envisioned – a lesson in thinking longer term.  We look forward to smooth sailing from now on.