Why We Need to Focus on Expanding Rail Networks
The way forward is not on the highway.
I just spent a week in London—the really big one, in the United Kingdom. There are many lessons to learn from such a large and complex transit system as London’s, but what stood out to me was how well-connected the city is to everywhere else.
Here in Toronto, we have nothing that compares to that. Not even close. Regional intercity transit is one of the weakest links in the transportation network in southern Ontario. It reveals our politically lazy reliance on the car to get us everywhere we want to go.
Over-reliance on the car is an important environmental issue. It’s also an economic one. Toronto, the greater Toronto region, and all of southern Ontario each has much unrealized economic potential. Our subpar productivity is routinely noted.
Southern Ontario contains several important cities: Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo, London, St. Catharines, Windsor, Barrie, Mississauga, Brampton, Kingston, and Ottawa. The area has a combined population of over 12 million, which is over 90 per cent of the province’s population.
Train service throughout the region is pretty limited. To or from Toronto, you can take commuter GO trains to Barrie, Brampton, and Mississauga.
There are some trains that go to Hamilton, but you’re often on a bus for the tail end.
Via Rail trains go fairly regularly to Ottawa and Kingston. But if you want a train to St. Catharines, there’s only one per day. There are only four trains per day to Windsor.
Train service to the Kitchener-Waterloo area is one of the most embarrassing political dances in transportation history, even including subways to Scarborough.
Despite a demand for “reverse” commuting from Toronto to the tech hub of Waterloo, as well as into Toronto, there are only four trains per day: four early in the morning from Kitchener to Toronto and four going back at the end of the day. It takes two hours, longer than it takes to drive.
Every one of those cities mentioned has a post-secondary institution, and many have more than one. They’re home to 12 major universities, plus one in Guelph and another in Peterborough. Access to these places is the key to student opportunities for education and training, collaboration among faculty at other universities, and connections to university research by the public and private sectors.
But I, for one, never go to talks at Hamilton’s McMaster University, even when I want to, because it’s too difficult and time-consuming to get there.
Not only should these cities have better connectivity to Toronto, they need connectivity among themselves. Getting from McMaster to Guelph is practically a non-starter—even the bus service is minimal. When I mapped the route on GO Transit’s website, it recommended I go via Mississauga.
Lots of people are already travelling over an hour each way, each day, to get to school or work. These are long commutes. That much driving is tiring. Being able to use the time on the train to relax, snooze, or even polish your presentation (as I did between London and Sheffield) is a tangible benefit not available to someone driving a car.
Worse, many people are not making the trip at all, because it’s too cumbersome or inconvenient. Those are lost opportunities.
Let me give you an idea of how much of a difference there is between Toronto and London in terms of regional train service.
Let’s look at the train schedule between the provincial capital, Toronto, and the nation’s capital, Ottawa. There are a total of eight trains from Toronto per day. The fastest train ride is just over four hours. The driving distance is 452 kilometres. There is little difference in time; often, driving is faster.
There is a train from London (population 8 million) to Manchester (population 4 million) every 20 minutes. All day. The trains go up to 200 kilometres per hour. It’s a driving distance of about 335 kilometres. On the train it takes just over two hours, even making a few stops. This is significantly faster than driving.
While we’re doing comparisons, let’s note that, in Japan, peak service between Tokyo and Osaka (a distance of 400 kilometres) has trains running every three to five minutes, equivalent to the subway here. There should be a train to Ottawa every hour. At least.
As I’ve noted before, urban-based economies require mobility. People literally have to move to thrive, and our economy drags when there are obstacles to easy mobility.
We cannot achieve our mobility goals with cars. Using cars to move the number of people we need to move is inefficient. It’s thinking too small. We’re not talking about a few hundred or thousand people—we’re talking about a combined population of 12 million, and that’s before we add in visiting travellers crossing the border or arriving at airports.
And frankly, compared to good train service, cars are too slow. We have to think on a bigger scale.
We need regular, all-day service that accommodates all kinds of plans—business, education, leisure—and doesn’t require you to give up the entire day to a trip because there are so few trains.
The train service has to be fast. We should be able to get to Ottawa on the train in under three hours, or to places like Barrie and Hamilton in 30 minutes.
The technology exists. We need to make the major investments in infrastructure to take advantage of it. And we have to think big.
Toronto should be thinking seriously about one or more new train stations in the city that are closer to its geographical centre, not all the way down to the lake at Union Station. The additional tracks above Weston Road and ongoing plans for the Bloor station at Dundas West are encouraging, but they’re just a start.
There are many reasons London has better regional train service than Toronto.
One key reason is governance structure. Transport for London (TfL) is a government body that oversees and coordinates all transport infrastructure operation and development for the London region, including national rail service to the capital. Its purview includes not only public mass transit, but roads, taxi licensing, cycling routes, and pedestrian access.
The original vision for Metrolinx was never as comprehensive, but it was closer to the independence and executive authority that TfL has.
Unfortunately, it’s been derailed, defanged, and hung out to dry regularly by its own creator, the Liberal provincial government, because politicians can’t resist exploiting big-money projects for votes.
We need to be serious and ambitious about our rail networks. The 21st century is not going to be kind to car-dependent regions. Their physical environments and economies are going to suffer in ways that also breed social and economic inequalities.
The way forward is not on the highway. Until there are jet packs, the future is on rails.