Ontario’s dream of a bullet train may have died a quiet death

Paul Langan thinks Ontario’s dream of a bullet train has already died a quiet death.

The President of High Speed Rail Canada, an organization dedicated to passenger rail advocacy and the promotion of high speed rail in Canada, thinks the dream was euthanized by the Ontario government in April. That’s when the Progressive Conservatives announced they would hit the ‘pause’ button on bankrolling the $11 billion project.

“I don’t see that pause button going to a move forward button,” he said. “They’re just going to shelve it.”

After Monday’s sudden and tumultuous backtrack on paying for Hamilton’s LRT by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, many transit experts think a bullet train from Toronto to Windsor is now unlikely to happen

When high speed rail was first proposed by under the previous Liberal government, it offered people from Windsor to Guelph the dazzling prospect of being comfortably whisked to Toronto in half the travel time. It meant they could have a big city job without having to pay the average million dollar price for a big city home.

‘They don’t want to upset that rural vote’

“Communities have to connect to each to each other to grow and be successful and have jobs,” Langan said. “It benefits everybody.”

However, people living on farms and in the small towns of Ontario’s heartland didn’t see it that way. For them, a bullet train offered nothing but pain.

Most notably for farmers, who saw the new line cut across a swath of prime farm land, which cost them not just fertile growing space, but access to fields and markets. That`s something Premier Doug Ford himself called “wrong.”

It’s why Langan believes Ford, who rode a wave of rural anger into the Premier’s office during the last election, won’t risk turning that anger into a liability.

“Basically they don’t want to upset that rural vote,” Langan said.

If the dream is truly dead, it’s by no means the first time. By Langan’s count, the idea has been studied in Ontario 22 times in the last 50 years.

And if the province’s response is any indication, it seems Ontario is no closer to a bullet train than it was a half century ago.

‘All signs point to this not happening’

When asked whether the prospect of high speed rail had been permanently abandoned, an official with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, who responded by email, didn’t even answer the question.

The official wrote that the MTO is “looking at a range of options” and that a transportation plan, specifically for southwestern Ontario, would be available in “due course.”

“I think all the signs point to this not happening,” said Ryan Katz-Rosene, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa who studied the political and economic barriers to building high speed rail in Canada through the lens of the environment and society.

Through his research he’s discovered that there is a compelling economic case for building a high speed rail link between Windsor, London, Kitchener and Toronto, but the case for not building one is just as compelling.

Ontario could improve what it already has

Katz-Rosene argues that Ontario could get just as much value, if not more, out of improving the current integration of Ontario’s often antiquated and sometimes dysfunctional transportation network.

“The ability to switch from TTC in Toronto through to ViaRail though to Go Transit, that’s the kind of cooperation that’s necessary to integrate these systems so that it functions as a smooth system.”

“Right now we don’t have that. We have multiple systems and competing interests,” he said. “We have no coherent transport policy that aims to address the problems.”

Even if Ontario spends the $11 billion on a gleaming new high speed rail line, there’s no guarantee people would actually get out of their cars.

‘People in Canada love their cars’

“People in Canada love their cars. They love travelling in their vehicles and the autonomy that provides. We have an airline sector that’s very competitive and doesn’t want to give up those short haul flights,” he said. “My worry is we end up building this new fancy project only to find that it adds to our emission profile.”

Instead of bickering over things like carbon taxes, Katz-Rosene argues the federal and provincial governments could get more done if they showed actual leadership, by working cooperatively on transportation issues for the public good.

He said the federal government under then-prime minister Stephen Harper missed a huge opportunity for this type of change in 2008, when it used its financial might to bail out Canada’s auto giants to the tune of billions of dollars.

“That was a real opportunity to really change what they were manufacturing and producing,” Katz-Rosene said, noting that despite almost losing their shirts, auto manufacturers industry kept creating the gas-guzzling SUVs that Canadians buy with gusto, even the detriment of the planet.

If governments want to tackle climate change while at the same time getting people from point A to B quickly and cheaply, Katz-Rosene said they should focus on alternatives that already exist.

“That existing infrastructure already includes rail. It requires really creative thinking to make it a win-win-win situation,” he said, noting that Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions in the developed world that still uses inter-city rail that isn’t electric.

“It’s astonishing. We’re still using diesel for powering trains.”


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