Change on Two Rails
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Change on Two Rails

In pushing for electric rail in the west end, local activists have the big picture in mind.

Past the rail bridge over Dupont Street, between Edwin Avenue and Dundas, the geography of the city suddenly changes. What stretches from east to west in a steady line suddenly lurches, going from residential to industrial to residential again, following the rails that wind though the landscape. Dundas, more or less a straight north-south corridor between Boustead Avenue and Dupont, veers west again, tracking the length of the CP Rail line between Old Weston and Scarlett Road. Further east, Keele becomes Weston Road at St. Clair, running parallel with the Canadian National Railway as it heads northwest, toward the airport.

The area for which the West Toronto Diamond and the West Toronto Juntion are both named is a place shaped—and, in many ways, defined—by the trains that run through it.

It’s a place where contested commercial, residential, and industrial infrastructures meet, where GO trains thunder past cyclists and joggers on the West Toronto Railpath, and where 300,000 people make their home. Controversially, it’s also where the province plans to run the Union-Pearson Air Rail Link, a long-awaited rail line to Pearson along the Georgetown South corridor—and a route that shares its tracks with CN and VIA Rail.

That there will be more trains running through their backyards isn’t such an issue, say local residents. The issue—a view shared among those who attended last weekend’s Clean Trains Festival on the West Toronto Railpath—is what will be powering them.

In January of 2011, David McKeown, Toronto’s chief medical officer, wrote a letter to Metrolinx chair Robert Prichard [PDF], calling for the electrification of the rail corridor; current plans call for the airport line to run on diesel. The letter was a huge boost for concerned West Toronto residents who had long been fighting for electrification. Seventy-five schools sit in close proximity to the tracks, they say, and the impact of heavy, carcinogenic diesel emissions—with chemicals like acrolein, benzene, and acetaldehyde hanging in the air—would be too toxic to ignore. McKeown agreed. 

“Electrification of the Georgetown and Lakeshore rail corridors,” he wrote, “while proposed for primarily business reasons, will bring health benefits to the communities adjacent to these corridors. By undertaking this initiative, Metrolinx will also be making its own modest but real contribution to the overall collective effort to improve air quality for the broader population of Toronto.” But his cost-benefit assessment went beyond simply eliminating emissions, suggesting that a beneficial knock-on effect would result. You’d have less traffic congestion, better transit options for area residents, and healthier lifestyles, too—using the Railpath, residents would have cleaner air to breathe while using cleaner methods to get to and from the GO station.

“I encourage you to adopt this recommendation and to proceed as soon as possible with Phase One,” McKeown wrote, “and subsequent phases of the electrifiation of the Georgetown and Lakeshore rail corridors.”

Two months later, Metrolinx distributed a newsletter to area residents that sealed the deal, supposedly. “Metrolinx Board approves electrification,” it stated, saying that, “This move follows approval by the Metrolinx Board of Directors…to begin electrification of the Lakeshore and Georgetown GO Transit rail corridors, with the new Air Rail Link (ARL) as the first phase.” At the time, it was taken as a victory for the grassroots, as if the provincial government had been swayed in some last-ditch David-versus-Goliath moment.

That, it turns out, was before reading the fine print.

“First,” wrote York South-Weston MP Mike Sullivan (NDP) in a letter to the Star, “Metrolinx has already purchased diesel trains, not electric for the Air Rail Link. They are convertible in the future, at an unknown cost.” The cars, built by Japan-based manufacturer Nippon Sharyo, can indeed be converted to run on electric power—like converting a diesel car to do the same, the design characteristics of a diesel train engine allow it. But at this stage, the McGuinty government has effectively said that while there will indeed be electric trains on the Georgetown route at some point, it won’t set a timeline for it. It’s diesel for the foreseeable future. 

“It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to knowingly dump toxins in your drinking water,'” wrote Andrew Cash, another area MP (NDP, Davenport), commenting on the issue in NOW Magazine. “‘But chill, in a decade or so we’ll go green.'”

To Cash, one of the organizers of the Clean Trains Festival, this is tantamount to a provincial insult of the public’s intelligence. “You know, people in the community have been saying for years that they want this thing electrified,” Cash told Torontoist during the festival. “The province does not listen. Through two elections that’s been a big issue, and those of us that have championed electrification,” he said, gesturing to the neighbourhoods along the Railpath, “have won, almost right along this rail corridor.”

At this point, all three levels of local government are involved, with Peggy Nash bringing the issue to Parliament, supported by Sullivan and transit critic Olivia Chow. And then there’s Jonah Schein, the MPP for Davenport, who will force a debate on electrification at the Ontario legislature later today with a private members’ bill. 

There are health concerns, issues with schools, noise, pollution, and as far as developing progressive transit is concerned, there’s definitely a sense of putting the right foot forward at a critical time. But in Schein’s neighbourhood, it’s the sense that people are being duped, he suggests, that’s of particular note. Considering the mixed economics of the area, many of these residents may have made costly, irreversible decisions about home ownership with this controversy in mind. How many chose to stick around because they heard Metrolinx was going electric rather than diesel? How many will now have difficulty selling with the opposite being true, at least in the short term? “It’s not an affordable neighbourhood, ” he said, “but it’s one of the more affordable neighbourhoods, and these people have put all their money into their mortgages and now they’re going to be screwed. And they don’t know about it necessarily.”

There’s also a question of running a new rail route through a community that won’t itself benefit from the service in question. “It seems a little ridiculous that the thing’s got two stops outside of Union and the airport,” Ward 19 councillor Mike Layton argues, “and that [it] doesn’t really service the neighbourhood that it goes through.” If there’s going to be a parade of a diesel rumbling through West Toronto, he suggested, West Toronto should at least be serviced by the route. With this in mind, Layton, with the support of York South-Weston councillor Frances Nunziata—one of the least-likely political unions imaginable in modern-day Toronto—tabled a motion in early April for the Air Rail Link to include everywhere from Liberty Village to Etobicoke North and Woodbine in its route. All situated in the West Toronto area, these stations would bring the line from two stops to 10. “We were also calling for it to be electrified immediately,” Layton explains, “because we don’t like the idea of a diesel-burning train going through neighbourhoods.”

Ten stops might slow the line down a little more than intended, Layton says, but that’s also not really the point. 

”I think we’ve got to get everyone around this corridor and get other people outside of it to realize, ‘You know what? Not making this investment now is a bad move.’ It’s putting money into something that’s really going to harm this community, and it’s something you’re just going to have to upgrade in the end anyhow.” Noting how many people would be served by re-jigging the line in this way—not just the business travellers and others hell-bent on getting to the airport—Schein agreed. “There are communities that would be supported, that need access to public transit, like Davenport and York South-Weston,” he said, “and it’s just a shame that that’s not happening.”

Layton and Nunziata’s motion received near-unanimous support at council: 41 in favour, with one opposed. Still, despite its stated position that the will of council rules supreme—something we’ve heard often with respect to other transit discussions—there was little from Queen’s Park in response. For the people at the microphone and in the crowd at Saturday’s festival, knowing this raises new, frustrating questions, or simply reinforces the old ones: what exactly is the provincial government’s problem? “It’s not clear to me, exactly,” said Schein. “I don’t know if they’ve dug themselves a hole and they’d look foolish to turn around.”

The looming prospect of the 2015 Pan Am Games is likely a complicating factor, with a do-or-die target date to get the line up and running. Perhaps Dalton McGuinty’s government sees that as a reason, however debatable, to hedge its safest bets now on getting an established system on the tracks, namely diesel, and worry about making the conversion to electric later. Purely electric trains, though less expensive in the long run, are also a little costly as a start-up expense. But that ignores the long-term issue, many at the rally said.

To Olivia Chow, the federal NDP’s transit critic and MP for Trinity-Spadina, it’s all redolent of a larger, even more frustrating problem at the national level. “It’s unbelievable that Canada, in 2012, does not have electric trains,” she told us. “We have the technology; Bombardier is a Canadian firm.” Though what Metrolinx is getting from Japan is possibly cheaper, what Canadian technology offers, she suggests, is recognized as a leading product in clean transportation—and doesn’t leave government with many excuses, whether federally, provincially, or municipally. 

“Bombardier goes around the world building electric trains everywhere,” she said. “Tokyo has them; I’ve taken them many times in Copenhagen. They are precise, they’re beautiful to ride in, and they are smooth, clean, and fast.”

At the Clean Trains Festival, local discussions were coloured by these broader, more nationally focused questions: “We’re going to keep on pushing,” Schein said. “We’re not the only community or the only riding affected; I know this is an issue south of us and north of us. So we’ll keep on bringing it up, getting together, fighting on it.” 

Photos by Jessica Rose Powell.