Next it Might be You (NIMBY) by Ken Westcar

After decades of service reductions and track demolition it seems the tide is turning on railway transportation in Ontario and Quebec. Freight carriers, primarily Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) report increasing demand for long-haul services while short-lines (local freight railways servicing specific businesses) enjoy modest growth. On the passenger front VIA Rail and the Province of Ontario have announced some interesting new plans for intercity passenger services, potentially requiring new infrastructure or the resurrection of routes that passed into history more than three quarters of a century ago.

Ontario has announced plans for high-speed rail (HSR) between Toronto, Kitchener, London and eventually Windsor. Determined not to allow dust to settle on this (as it has with other such plans) the province is pushing ahead with an Environmental Assessment (EA) on Kitchener to London section. Currently it’s a single-focus EA that specifically excludes all other rail-based options including upgrading services currently provided by incumbent, VIA Rail.

(High-speed rail infrastructure requires a 50 metre wide corridor, long-radius curves and straight track. Land use is approximately 12 acres per mile. Safety considerations include no at-grade road crossings and robust security fencing at 2 – 3 metres high. Passage of migratory fauna must be fully accommodated and habitat destruction avoided. No image attribution.)

Strident local opposition is questioning why the proposed route will consume roughly 1000 acres of Wilmot Twp., Oxford County and Thames Centre prime agricultural farmland. Oddly enough, the province does not recognise agriculture as an industry, so its collective voice has, so far, been excluded from consideration in the EA. This brings the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) EA process and the HSR business case into serious question.

Transport Canada, typical of other international rail regulatory authorities, prohibits grade crossing with train speeds above 177kph which is far below the 250kph speed planned for this part of the route. Closure of most concession roads where they intersect the high-speed tracks will be required. Overpasses for remaining roads will need to be designed specifically for increased, regular vehicle traffic plus oversize farm vehicles that would normally traverse concession roads.

Farmers, therefore, face the double whammy of productive land loss and additional costs in taking circuitous routes from their fields, barns and elevators. Transportation costs for crop inputs and outputs will also rise, severed land values may be depressed and some field segments may be uneconomic to work. There’s also concern about new investment in livestock barns and nutrient management systems that might require demolition or relocation if they are on, or adjacent to, the proposed rail route.

The province has also been mum on the extent of urban expropriation and demolition required in Kitchener and London to push the required 50 metre-wide right of way through residential and commercial subdivisions. Only now are these cities starting to realise that having a shiny, new train comes with significant and potentially painful downsides. To be truly high-speed and deliver the London-Kitchener-Toronto journey times being quoted by the province, the tracks must be as straight as possible, so dipsy-doodling around obstacles is not possible.

Terms of Reference for the $15m Environmental Assessment (EA) for this project started in March and the entire process will take approximately four years. The province has announced that this $20bn project will be up and running by 2025 but those familiar with projects of this magnitude disagree on the final cost and timeline – by a wide margin.

Normal practice for EA’s for planned new or much upgraded rail routes normally consider three or four options:

  • Do nothing.
  • Alternative 2 maintains the current role of rail;
  • Alternative 3 grows the role that rail plays in regional transportation;
  • Alternative 4 transforms rail as the mode of choice for transportation in the region.

The province has decided only Alternative 4 will be considered. It is the most expensive and disruptive. And it may have the greatest risk given that it assumes a ten-fold increase in the number of rail passengers travelling between London and Toronto between now and 2025. This conflicts with global, empirical rail passenger growth rate of between 3% and 4% annually.

The obvious reaction to this is to question why the province is not looking at Alternative 3 that’s achievable by upgrading existing rail infrastructure and passenger trains serving southwestern Ontario. Why take the bull-in-a-china-shop approach with large scale rural and urban expropriation and demolition and the need for imported train technology when speed is not the key driver of regional rail passenger growth?

(250kph high-speed trains are primarily replacements for short-haul flights of between 200km and 800km and between cities with populations of 2 million and higher. Image courtesy of Siemens Mobility.)

Passenger rail travel doesn’t work for most people in southwestern Ontario because it’s constrained in its ability to offer accessibility, affordability and a train when you need one. Alternative 3 could address this through incremental and financially responsible service improvements whereas Alternative 4 makes the very risky assumption that travellers can be tempted out of their personal vehicles en-masse.

Although Premier Wynne re-announced the HSR project in Kitchener and London on April 6th it was to audiences with growing concerns about the blinkered EA process. The initial concerns of farmers with operations on the proposed Kitchener to London route catalysed a larger community group who have organised and expanded under the “Intercityrail” ( banner. Public meetings have drawn audiences of 350 or more, primarily seeking information on what HSR actually is and how it could affect their properties and future travel options.

Renewed interest in better passenger rail services in Ontario may see other routes being planned or upgraded and adjacent land and property owners should monitor the situation closely. VIA Rail’s plan to review the rehabilitation and re-opening of a freight-free route on the long-abandoned and demolished CP Havelock subdivision from Peterborough to Smith’s Falls is being studied by Transport Canada. Whether it gets to the environmental assessment stage is yet to be determined but adjacent landowners need to remain diligent.

That Canada needs massive infrastructure renewal is without question. But, when it’s likely highly disruptive to communities and industry, it needs to be judged on potential benefits to society as a whole. This is where a comprehensive, multi-option environmental assessment process is essential. It must give adequate voice to all affected parties and not just a few selected facilitators. NIMBYism will certainly prevail, no matter what, but in advance of this, we need to interpret this acronym as, “Next It Might Be You”.