Rail OntarioOnce upon a time, railways crisscrossed Ontario and moved freight and passengers between almost every city, village and town. But, as roads were improved and automobiles and trucks became more popular, passengers and shippers migrated to other means of travel and railways were gradually abandoned and, in many cases, torn up. Today, passenger rail service in Ontario is limited to commuter trains in the Toronto area, VIA Rail Canada inter-city service, and rural services in the far north - a relatively small network. The freight railway network isn't much bigger, limited the potential to expand passenger rail service to additional communities. But, what if we hadn't abandoned those lines?
Using GIS technology to display data created by myself and by the Southern Ontario Railway Map project, this is one concept of what an Ontario passenger railway network could look like:
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This railway network, which I call Rail Ontario, could stretches to all corners of the province with connections to Detroit in the west, Buffalo in the south, Quebec City in the east and Winnipeg in the north. Many of these lines use could use existing fright railway lines, but the vast majority run in corridors which have been abandoned for decades. In some cases, these corridors have become trails, and a trust fund should be established to ensure that every kilometre of reconverted trail is replaced. In some cases, development has obscured the old rights-of-way. In these cases, street railway alignments should be used with tram-trains - vehicles that can operate safely on the street and at high-speed on the mainline. Electric rail infrastructure should be installed on high ridership routes with frequent departures, and other routes should use diesel-electric equipment which meets the most forward-looking emission standards. Stations should be built as close to the central business districts of the cities and towns that they serve, and local transit, taxis and bicycle rental stations should be available to for the last mile of the trip.
A Rail Ontario network would offer several different brands of service, depending on the line.
Regional service would be the evolution of the VIA Rail service we have today and would operate on the high-ridership routes passing through major cities in southern Ontario. Standard locomotive-and-coach trains would call at the larger centres similar in size to those that VIA Rail and Ontario Northland currently stop at. However, service will be much faster and more frequent than the service operated today.
Express service would use european-style high speed trains between Toronto and Quebec City. This service would be designed to compete with airlines, so trains should offer premium amenities, only make intermediate stops in Ottawa and Montreal, and be able to reach top speeds of 300 km/h.
Local service would call at all the towns and villages along the line to ensure that everyone has access to the railway network. The major transcontinental lines, mostly connecting northern and southern Ontario, would use more traditional train sets with baggage cars, coaches, sleepers, dining cars and observation coaches, while shorter lines would use multiple-unit trains which are more efficient to operate. At minimum, all lines will see service under the Local brand.
Suburban Metro service would only operate in built up areas, and would be the evolution of the current GO Transit network to provide both a peak-hour commuter service and a frequent regional rail service. Peak-hour equipment should include locomotive-hauled trains of bi-level coaches and european-style multiple-unit trains. Unlike the GO Transit network of today, Suburban Metro service would operate the multiple-unit trains every ten minutes or better to provide a quality of service similar to that of a subway line.
These distinct brands will serve different markets and travel patterns, but will complement each other to ensure seamless travel between many communities in Ontario. Today, the mainline between Toronto and London has 11 GO Transit stations and 6 VIA Rail stations. Under a Rail Ontario network, there could be 11 Suburban Metro stations, 16 Local stations, 6 Regional stations and 2 Express stations. In addition, numerous other lines could connect with the mainline to serve other communities that have gone without rail service for decades. Potentially, the service map could look like this:
Each brand would use its own method of calculating cost, as some services would be faster and offer more amenities. However, the pricing would be consistent within the brand (i.e, an express Metro train from Burlington to Toronto would cost the same as a stopping Metro train). An integrated ticketing system would allow each brand to complement each other for seamless travel across the province.
As the price of gasoline climbs ever higher, every community in Ontario will be affected. There will be pressures to relocate businesses closer to large markets as the cost of shipping increases, and potentially, the only employer in one-industry towns will close. As the businesses move, people will follow, leading to increased development pressure on cities. While we will always need to intensify our urban spaces, the large urban centres of the province cannot possibly accommodate the citizens of every town and village in the their hinterlands without resorting to allowing urban sprawl (even if it is better designed sprawl). By expanding railway service to these communities and providing convenient links between large urban centres we can reduce automobile dependency, build more sustainable cities and towns and prevent the sacking of Ontario's small towns. As an added bonus, these railway links will allow industries in the hinterland to survive by shifting goods movement from trucks to trains.
Once upon a time, the train was the only way to travel quickly between cities and towns in Ontario. A second renaissance is long overdue, and when it arrives, almost every community in the province could be just a convenient train ride away.