In April, 2022, Ontario released the last of its regional transportation plans – this one for Eastern Ontario. Transport Action Ontario (TAO) has reviewed this plan. In general, we find it to be long on ideas but short on specific actions. The highway-centric nature of most of the actions is a concern. TAO feels that more emphasis on public transit, intercommunity public transportation and freight rail is needed.
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.
On September 8, 2022, Bill 2, which amended the City of Toronto Act (among other things), was given royal assent at Queens Park. It provides that “the TTC may enter into an agreement with a municipality or local board authorizing the municipality or local board to operate, maintain or both operate and maintain part of a local passenger transportation system within the City”.
This is an important step forward for transit service integration in Greater Toronto. In February, 2022, the TTC and adjacent transit agencies (Brampton, Durham, Mississauga, York) unveiled a Cross-Boundary Service Integration Plan. Phase 1 involved pilot integration on two corridors – Burnhamthorpe Rd. and Dufferin St. The final phase (Phase 3) would be full “open door” rollout on all 24 cross-boundary routes wherein the 905 agency would provide all bus service within the City. TTC would reallocate its service to other areas in Toronto. This results in better customer service and annual operating cost savings of over $3M/yr.
Removing the legislative barrier in the City of Toronto Act was identified as a key step in the Plan and has now been achieved. Other key steps remain, such as implementing a fare collection solution with Presto on 905 transit buses in Toronto.
Niagara Region announced on September 1st. 2022 that it has acquired the historic train stations at St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, along with the surrounding lands, from VIA Rail as part of a significant redevelopment of the two station sites.
This implements a critical piece of the Region’s GO Station Development Strategy and when complete, will see new multi-modal bus-meets-train connections at the two heritage station sites, supporting planned increases of GO train service to Niagara.
The Region committed $40 million as part of its station development strategy back in 2016, and has been advancing numerous enabling projects across the two station sites together with the Cities of St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. Planned investments at both sites were announced on September 1st:
A new multi-modal mobility hub preserving the historic VIA/GO Rail station, while modernizing the interior structure for multiple transit tenants
New bus loops with nine bays split between the east and west side of the building, moving the existing transit plaza on Erie Avenue to be adjacent to the station for safer and more efficient movement of people
Modernized washrooms and customer waiting area, including a dedicated space for bus operators
New Victoria Avenue roundabout that connects Victoria Avenue, Thorold Stone Road (extension) and Bridge Street; thus, improving traffic flow/function in the station area
Bridge Street reconstruction providing active transportation connections; accommodations for future growth; safe movement of transit; and accommodating increased pedestrian volumes at the station
A new multi-modal mobility hub preserving the historic VIA/GO Rail station,
Establishing new bus connections for Niagara Region Transit (NRT) and GO Transit; parking enhancements; public plaza space; active transportation connections
Constructing a new site access road connecting the station to Ridley Road in partnership with the City of St. Catharines and Ridley College.
A new bus loop with six bays resulting in overall improvements to the property, including appropriate site access and servicing
Replacement of the one hundred year old CN overpass (St. Paul Street West Bridge) to improve sight lines; providing flatter slopes on the approaches and improved public safety for all modes of transportation (vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians)
Streetscape improvements on Ridley Road such as sidewalks, on-street parking configuration, boulevards and driving lane configurations
Niagara Region and VIA Rail have been working since 2019 to transfer the St. Catharines and Niagara Falls station to Niagara Region. Niagara Regional council has approved the terms of the station transfer, VIA Rail’s Board of Directors has also approved of the transfer in principle pending approval from Parks Canada for the disposition of a heritage railway station. Upon approval from Parks Canada the two parties are positioned to immediately transfer station ownership.
Bruno Cacciola, Chief Business Transformation Officer for VIA Rail confirmed that the cross-border Amtrak service to Buffalo and New York will continue to serve the two stations: “The transfer of ownership to the Niagara Region of these two stations, pending the usual regulatory process involving a formal approval from Parks Canada, will benefit the community and will give options in order to enhance service to the region. This agreement will also allow VIA Rail to continue offering the Maple Leaf service with our partner, Amtrak, and therefore bring thousands of tourists to the region.”
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