Friday, October 22, 2010

Thoughts on ye olde iron plateway

The mayor of Stratford is calling on GO Transit to bring the proposed service extension to Kitchener to his city to support tourism (particularly to the Stratford Festival), provide alternatives to a potential highway expansion, and to deal with opposition associated with the extension. The preferred alternative for the Kitchener extension is to build a layover yard between the hamlets of Baden and New Hamburg in Wilmot Township, just west of Kitchener. While the area residents do not want the yard, politicians in Stratford are willing to accept the yard provided it come with a station.

Stratford's original 1914 Grand Trunk station sees two round trips on VIA Rail per day, and bringing more rail service cities like it is something we should support. But, since areas which are far outside of GO's traditional boundaries are now asking for service, we need to ask ourselves if a typical GO train is the right tool for the job. As we already have an inter-city rail carrier in this country, we should consider finding a way to partner with VIA Rail to expand service to destinations outside of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Since some of these proposed service expansions are creeping close to being two hours long, I believe that riders will be better served by the amenities VIA provides rather than those found on a typical GO train. In California, the state funds several Amtrak routes which are not operated by regional train carriers like Metrolink or Caltrain, and under this model, the Ontario Government could pay VIA Rail to increase frequencies on its routes within the province. This may require legislative changes at the federal level, as VIA Rail may not have the legal authority to make such an agreement. However, these same legislative changes would result in VIA Rail being less constrained by government whims.

What I have noticed is that most communities, even those with VIA Rail service, want GO trains. I suspect this is because, over time, the GO brand has come to represent something that VIA Rail doesn't. GO represents frequent service, while VIA Rail only comes around a few times per day - but the same funding that increases GO service could also increase VIA Rail service. GO represents low fares, while VIA Rail fares tend to be more costly - but VIA Rail fares could be just as inexpensive with higher subsidies. GO represents fast and on-time trips, while VIA Rail trips are often delayed and slow - but the same track improvements necessary for reliable service will benefit VIA Rail. The same thing applies for bringing GO bus service to areas which are already served by the private bus lines. With Greyhound offering the same number of - if not more - round trips to Peterborough, Niagara Falls and Kitchener than GO does, would the goal of moving people out of cars be better served by a partnership? For Greyhound, this could mean higher revenues as more passengers would take advantage of subsidized tickets. For the public, this could mean a grey GO bus to Kitchener and more green ones on the 407 to York U.

I believe that we should be expanding rail service in this province, and that we should consider reactivating abandoned rail lines to bring service to more and more communities - when we reach peak oil, reliable rail service might be the only way to keep residents and jobs in small towns and villages. But, we shouldn't be building a system where public transit providers compete with each other.

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