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                       High Speed Rail For Vote-Rich Liberal Heartland: 

                                             Does It Make Sense?  



By Randall White

Recently a further chapter began in an already long story about high-speed rail in Southwestern Ontario - one that that almost no one really believes.

As explained by the Office of the Premier, the province is going ahead with preliminary design work on the Toronto-Windsor corridor High Speed Rail (HSR) service. The idea was outlined by David Collenette in a Special Advisor’s Final Report submitted this past December. 

To start with, the Ontario government will be investing $15 million in a "comprehensive environmental assessment” of the Proposed Future Southwestern Ontario HSR. And then it will establish a new governing body "to oversee the ambitious work required to design and implement high-speed rail.”

As often noted, Canada’s most populous province has a long history of talking big about high speed rail — as far back as the 1970s. And even the latest concept focused on the old Liberal party heartland of Southwestern Ontario already has a past. 

Three years ago, then-transportation minister Glen Murray told a London, Ontario audience about his ministry’s plans for a high-speed rail service linking London, Kitchener, Pearson airport, and downtown Toronto. 

Opposition critics called the concept “a fantasy” in search of Liberal votes. The Waterloo Region Record noted that a 1995 study said the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto link "represents the best scenario" for high-speed rail. A 2011 study said the Montreal to Toronto stretch is the only route that would "provide a net economic benefit" to the country.

Since the days when Darcy McKeough was William Davis’s legendary Treasurer of Ontario, various high-speed rail concepts have nonetheless found friends in Ontario cabinets. 

Kathleen Wynne’s finance minister, Charles Sousa, advocated a high-speed rail service connecting Hamilton and Oshawa (and eventually Windsor and Quebec City) in the last Liberal leadership race. 

The Southwestern Ontario HSR service outlined in this past December’s Collenette report certainly involves unmistakable “political warping” (as transportation engineers sometimes put it) towards a region whose attachments to various Liberal parties go back to the 19th century.  

The service would be implemented in two phases. Phase 1 (the target operational date is 2025) connects Toronto to London, stopping along the way at Pearson airport, Guelph, and Kitchener. Phase 2 (2031) extends the HSR service to Windsor, stopping at Chatham.

However, much current conventional wisdom, gleaned from various studies since the 1970s, argues that Ontario and/or anywhere else in Canada — unlike France, Germany, Japan, the Northeastern U.S. or even California from San Francisco to Los Angeles — just doesn’t have the dense human geography that can make high speed rail economically efficient.

Yet the business case for HSR in Southwestern Ontario, advanced by the Collenette report, is meant not to accommodate dense development that has already happened, but rather to attract new development that is not yet there.

As the Collenette “vision statement” explains, the objective is “To transform mobility in Southwestern Ontario in order to connect communities, integrate centres of innovation, and foster regional and economic growth and development.” 

It is another business-case attraction of the Southwestern Ontario HSR concept that, in its most easterly stretches, much required work on infrastructure is or will be already under way, in connection with additions to the GO transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.  

These additions flow from the more usual demand-based transportation planning. Metrolinx, created to co-ordinate regional transportation in 2006, is now “embarking on a massive transformation of the GO rail network — the backbone of regional rapid transit in the GTHA.”

This includes the Barrie Rail Corridor Expansion (BRCE) Project, which has begun the process for the proposed addition of tracks and supporting infrastructure from Lansdowne Avenue in the Toronto to the Allandale Waterfront GO Station in Barrie.

Similar demand-based projects for the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) service from Toronto to Kitchener could set the stage for Phase 1 of the Southwestern Ontario HSR.

Of course the HSR proposal is also meant to get much-needed votes in Southwestern Ontario for the Wynne Liberals. And, like green energy, high-speed rail in some minds just spells trouble.

But if politicians at Queen’s Park (and their private sector partners?) ever do come up with the money to build such a thing — beyond the environmental assessment, and along with expensive subways in Toronto etc. — who knows? 

As Detroit and the adjacent U.S. rust belt continue to recover, high-speed rail just might be an economic development strategy for Southwestern Ontario that works, at last.  

Meanwhile, will the promised new governing body to oversee the work required to design and implement high-speed rail be established before the 2018 election? And will any of this finally help the Wynne Liberals at least replicate the latest murky achievements of the Clark Liberals in BC?









About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : May 26, 2017

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