Crossing the tracks: high-speed rail in Ontario

Concerned southwestern Ontario resident shares her thoughts on HSR

Linda J. Visser

Editor's note: Linda J. Visser, a concerned resident of southwestern Ontario, shared the letter that she’s sent to government officials about the proposed high-speed rail system connecting Toronto to Windsor. She encourages other concerned Ontarians to reach out to provincial and local representatives to discuss the issue.

I write to express my concerns regarding the proposed high speed rail (HSR) planned for Windsor to Toronto. I appreciate the value in investing in our province’s infrastructure, but am concerned that the current proposal does not represent the preferred and most feasible alternative for our province.

Specifically, I am concerned that the current proposal (with stations in the downtown areas of London and Kitchener) will only result in a marginal reduction of travel time at significant monetary and non-monetary costs. Given the Province of Ontario’s current debt level, careful consideration must be given before making an investment of this magnitude.

I understand that Ontario issued a Request for Bids on December 15, 2017 to develop the environmental assessment terms of reference for the Kitchener-Waterloo to London portion of the corridor. I expect that the terms of reference are limited in this manner because the proposal contemplates HRS running on or adjacent to existing rail systems for the Windsor to London and Kitchener to Toronto corridors.

However, there could still be environmental impacts in these corridors that should properly be part of the consideration. The environmental assessment process should consider the cumulative impacts.

I note that the environmental assessment will not include additional assessments of other alternative modes of transportation. Given the magnitude of the investment and impact on Ontarians, fulsome consideration should be given to all reasonable alternatives.

I am also concerned that the matter has been pre-determined. I note that there were originally two proposed routes from London to Kitchener-Waterloo, but understand that the request for proposal for the environmental assessment uses language suggesting that the route will follow the hydro corridor. I am concerned that fulsome consideration will not be given to alternative routes, including using existing tracks or building adjacent to existing tracks. An environmental assessment requires an analysis of all alternatives.

Modern High Speed Train
    scanrail/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

It is my understanding that the HSR can only travel 75km per hour in urban areas. With the current plans to have stations in the downtown cores, a considerable portion of travel time will be in urban areas and the average travel time will be significantly less than the 200+ km/hour that the HSR is capable of travelling.

Ironically, for some people, the travel time to Toronto will likely increase if the current proposal is implemented. For example, currently someone living in Thames Centre might drive to Woodstock and travel Via Rail from Woodstock to Toronto. Under the new proposal, such person would either have to travel west to downtown London or east to downtown Kitchener (either way having to permit extra time for traffic and parking). The cumulative travel time would likely be greater.

MONETARY COSTS

In terms of monetary costs, I understand construction costs to be estimated at over $20 billion (although I have heard estimates as high as $50 billion). It is my understanding that this estimate is limited to the cost of building the HSR and fails to include the following costs:

  1. expropriation of the land required;
  2. compensating persons outside the expropriation range for lost property values. The property values of adjacent properties and properties affected by the dead-ending of roads will plummet
  3. developing additional infrastructure on existing rights-of-way. Traffic will increase substantially and additional lanes and/or tunnels or bridges will be necessary; and
  4. ongoing increased winter and other maintenance costs associated with servicing dead-end roads.
    These costs could add additional billions to the price tag. I would appreciate your estimates on the costs of the above-listed items and other costs aside from actual construction.

NON-MONETARY COSTS

In terms of non-monetary costs, HSR has made negative consequences:

  1. The current proposal would require expropriation of thousands of acres of prime farmland which is protected by the Provincial Policy Statement; thus negatively affecting this country’s food supply. It is my understanding that the required right of way is 100 feet, plus another 200 feet on each side as a safety clearance. Southwestern Ontario is the most productive agricultural land in the country. Efforts must be taken to preserve this valuable resource.
    Eliminating productive agricultural land will have the effect of increasing commodity prices and thus food prices, affecting all Ontarians.
     
  2. As I understand, there can be no level road crossings. This means that many roads will be dead-ended. This has many negative impacts for affected areas:
    • As mentioned above, values of affected properties will plummet.
    • Response time by emergency vehicles will increase significantly.
    • School bus routes will be disrupted and children will have increased travel time. It might be necessary to rezone school districts.
    • Postal service routes will be disrupted, increasing cost of this service.
    • The cost of maintaining roads will increase dramatically, as snowploughs and other maintenance vehicles will have to deal with dead-ended roads.
    • Residents will be inconvenienced as a result of increased travel time – both as a result of having to de-tour to avoid dead-ended roads and additional traffic congestion where there is a level crossing. This will result in increased carbon emissions.
       
  3. For rural areas, the negative effects will be greater:
    • The distance between level crossings will likely be greater, resulting in a greater increase in travel time. For farmers travelling in agricultural equipment, this creates considerable hazards as they will be forced onto busy highways.
    • Farms will literally be cut in half, making the land difficult (if not impossible) to access and service.
    • Farms that have been in the family for generations will be lost. An example of this is a local farmer whose farm has been in the family for 152 years, longer than Canada has been a country. His farm will likely be expropriated if the proposal goes forward.
    • Property values will drop and the cost of equivalent properties in unaffected areas will increase – making it unaffordable for many affected farmers to relocate.
    • Our sense of community will be destroyed, as community members will be forced to relocate and communities will be literally cut in half. Urban areas often lack a sense of community, as many neighbours rarely engage in a meaningful manner. In rural Ontario, the notions of “community” and “neighbour” still mean something. We are always there to offer a helping hand and our children grow up together.

      Put simply, for people living in the surrounding rural areas, the affects will be devastating.
       

  4. Communities that are currently serviced by Via Rail (such as Stratford, Woodstock, St. Marys) will no longer be serviced. An ideal solution should not involve making public transit less accessible for large segments of the population.
     
  5. Local municipalities could face a funding crisis. As indicated above, road maintenance costs would increase dramatically and, at the same time, property values of affected and adjacent land will plummet, resulting in decreased tax revenue.
     
  6. Businesses will be destroyed. The expropriation would put many businesses in affected areas out of business and some businesses are irreplaceable. For example, I understand that the proposed route will likely cut through Appleland Station, an apple orchard located near London, which allows people to pick-their-own apples. This is the only remaining such orchard in the London area and possibly in all of southwestern Ontario. It is visited by thousands of families and school children each year. It is businesses like this that make Ontario a great place to live and it would be a loss to everyone in the area if this and other businesses were shut down as a result of HSR.
     
  7. Loss of natural resources. Numerous woodlots and wetlands will be destroyed as part of creating the necessary clearance. Additionally, there are several large gravel pits (including some recently made operable) operating in the proposed corridor that will likely be closed as a result of the HSR. These resources are essential to Ontario’s continued development.
     
  8. There will be increased congestion in the downtown areas, where stations are located.

ALTERNATIVES

There are other alternatives that are preferential and would not have the same negative impacts:

  1. Upgrading Via Rail: Via Rail could be upgraded to have dedicate passenger lines and/or a second track allowing for two-way traffic. This option has many benefits over the proposed HSR:
    • It would build on existing infrastructure, resulting in both cost and time savings.
    • This option would not entail the same level of disruption to communities and loss of agricultural land.
    • This option would involve a much lower capital investment and could be implemented in stages – thus decreasing the burden on taxpayers.
    • Smaller communities would remain connected to the transportation network.
       
  2. High Performance Rail: High performance rail is fast, frequent and affordable intercity rail passenger service. I understand that Oxford Country has recommended high performance rail as an alternative (read: Oxford County HSR Environtmental Essessment here). This option has many benefits over the proposed HSR:
    • It would build on existing infrastructure, resulting in both cost and time savings.
    • This option would not entail the same level of disruption to communities and loss of agricultural land.
    • This option would involve a much lower capital investment and could be implemented in stages – thus putting a much reduced burden on taxpayers.
    • Smaller communities could be connected by busing to the nearest station (similar to GO Transit).
    • This alternative has already proven effective in Ontario and the northeastern U.S.
    • This alternative could be used in conjunction with GO Transit to provide a well-integrated transportation system.
       
  3. Use existing tracks and/or locate parallel to existing tracks: As I understand, the HSR service between Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo would run on existing, enhanced shared track with GO Regional Express Rail and the HSR service between Windsor and London would run predominately adjacent to existing CN and/or CP rail corridors. The London to Kitchener corridor is the only corridor where a new track is proposed. If a determination is made that HSR is the most appropriate choice for Ontario, like the other corridors, the London to Kitchener corridor should run on existing tracks and/or adjacent to existing rail corridors. This option would have the following benefits over the current proposal:
    • It would build on existing infrastructure, resulting in both cost and time savings.
    • This option would not entail the same level of disruption to communities and loss of agricultural land.
    • This option would involve a much lower capital investment (in terms of expropriated land) – thus decreasing the burden on taxpayers.
    • This option has the potential of keeping smaller communities connected to the transportation network. For example, a Stratford to Kitchener corridor could be added to service this area.
       
  4. Locate the HSR parallel to the 401: Locating the HSR parallel to the 401 and with stations adjacent to the 401 has the following benefits:
    • This option would reduce the amount of travel in urban areas and allow the train to run at high speeds for a longer distances; thereby reducing travel time.
    • This option would also be less disruptive to communities and the environment, as it could be built on or adjacent to existing rights of way.
    • This option would complement proposed developments in Kitchener-Waterloo, which is already in the process of developing a light rail system that will provide better access to the 401. Locating the HSR stations adjacent to the 401 would complement this system well. London is currently looking at transportation alternatives and could similarly create a public transit that connects the services.
       
  5. Connect Union Station through UP Express Trains: This province recently improved transportation services between Union Station and Pearson Airport by the introduction of UP Express Trains. Two high-speed services between Union Station and Pearson Airport is redundant. This portion of the corridor could be serviced by the UP Express Trains.
     
  6. Hyperloop: The hyperloop can travel at speeds more than three times faster than high speed trains and is two-thirds the cost. The hyperloop systems can be built on columns or tunneled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings. More information about this option is available online at www.hyperloop-one.com.

Of the alternatives outlined above, building on existing infrastructure would be the preferred approach – both in terms of cost and environmental impact. As I understand, there is an increasing movement towards implementing developments that are carbon neutral. The only viable options that would not result in an increase in carbon emissions are those that take advantage of existing infrastructure. I respectfully ask that you confirm that the environmental assessment of HSR will include meaningful consideration to such alternatives and the other alternatives set forth above.

I also ask that you keep us appraised of any major steps that are undertaken as part of this initiative. BF

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