Announced high speed rail will split farms in half, isolate rural communities

The proposed high speed rail line follows the hydro corridor, slicing farm fields and communities in half. Photo Credit: B. E. Myers, 2018

Last week, the Ontario government formally announced the blueprint for bringing high speed rail (HSR) to southern Ontario. The $11 billion line item in last month’s election-ready budget would see Phase One connect London and Toronto by 2025, according to the province. The proposed HSR line would eventually run all the way to Windsor for a construction cost of $21 billion.

The long-promised train that will travel at 250 km/h is part of a larger, expanded public transit system, the province says, that involves a GO Regional Express Rail (RER) project, which will introduce all-day, two-way service every 15 minutes across the GO rail network.

Using a “combination of existing track and new dedicated rail corridors,” Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are promising big things for “innovation hubs” London and Kitchener-Waterloo, but they have done what they’ve always done, it seems, and have failed to consider two rather large components of building this rail line: the actual cost, and farmers, farmland, and rural communities the line will displace.

In digging into the Ministry of Transportation’s Special Advisor’s final report, the full discussion on community consultation and impact is dedicated to concerns regarding indigenous communities, grassland preservation, and invasive plant species. Farmland, farmers, and rural communities — that will in some cases be severed in half by the proposed line — don’t even get a mention.

There’s little disagreement on the need for faster, more efficient people-moving in southwestern Ontario, but the high speed rail line has several municipalities seriously concerned about what the wall-like train will have on their communities.

Thames-Centre, East Zorra-Tavistock, Zorra, and Wilmot municipalities have put forward motions asking that alternative rail options be considered in the environmental assessment (EA) set to begin shortly.

Currently, the environmental assessment process asks the wrong question, explains Kelly Elliott, councillor for Thames Centre. “What many people don’t understand is that the EA won’t give us a comparison of all our rail options, it will only tell us how to build high speed rail through the hydro corridor.”

Elliott is part of a growing group of Ontario jurisdictions that want to see high performance rail considered as well.

What’s the difference? The HSR, as proposed, travels over the 177 km/h limit for level rail crossings, Elliott explains. What many urban and rural residents haven’t realized is that this rail line will essentially become a wall. “Every mile of track will use 12 acres of land. There will be a fenced 100 metre right-of-way on either side. Any crossing of the line, by law, must be an over or an under pass.”

And that’s where it gets expensive and complicated, as the province has said it will only cover the cost of underpasses on major highways. In Elliott’s ward, there are no such highways running north/south, leaving the municipality on the hook for the full cost of any crossings or risk a community completely cut in half.

Elliott says that the alternative high performance rail — which would double tracks on existing infrastructure — would have a dedicated passenger line and travel up to 176 km/h, allowing for level crossings. It would also preserve existing VIA Rail service, something she says will be lost under the HSR proposal. Farms and communities would remain intact.

And then there’s the cost comparison between the two options. While Wynne’s Liberals have announced $11 billion for phase one and estimate the cost of a Toronto to Windsor line at $21 billion, Elliott says that number doesn’t include a shockingly long and expensive list of items, such as:

  • the cost of expropriating land
  • the trains themselves — high speed rail trains cost about $50 million each. The province will need 15
  • the cost for additional tunnels, bridges, and crossings
  • road closure and construction costs while the line is being built

Elliott and those who support high performance rail say that the entire line from Toronto to Windsor could be completed for just $5 billion and years sooner.

“Realistically, given the time it takes to complete an environmental assessment, it’ll be ten or 12 years before anyone steps on one of those trains,” Elliott says of the province’s ambitious 2025 timeline. Proponents for the high performance line say it could be functional in five years.

Ultimately, it’s not just rural and farming communities that are likely to be negatively impacted, however. Elliott says that VIA Rail service is likely to suffer under this new plan, impacting communities all along the line from Windsor, Sarnia, to London. Elliott says that in its bid to promote London and Kitchener-Waterloo as innovation hubs, the province is pitting one major provincial economy against the other.

“Farming contributed $4.5 billion to the GDP in 2016. We don’t need to be competitors with each other,” Elliott says

“Regional transport IS an issue,” she stresses, and needs to be improved. “But there are other options than high speed rail.”

The ask from the most-affected municipalities is a simple one: expand the environmental assessment to include other options than high speed rail. “We just want alternative rail options and alternative routes to be considered and evaluated in the EA, that’s all,” she says. “This needs to be an election issue.”

To that end, Doug Ford’s camp says that there’s nothing in the budget that accounts for the $11 billion promised to build Phase One, should it go ahead.

“We are committed to funding the environmental assessment with consultation on the route for this high speed rail project, because the people this South Western Ontario deserves a transportation system that works,” reads a comment from Ford’s office. They say he is committed to consulting on the route, and looking at all of the options.

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