It's nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks Ottawa needs to retain what little heavy rail network it has left.
In my travels with family this summer, I ended up having an interesting conversation with a friend of my wife's family that once operated a truck stop in Cardinal, Ont., a small town in Eastern Ontario. She mentioned to me that she found operating the business extremely difficult because finding staff was a major headache. She explained that most people told her they were chasing a federal public service job in Ottawa. This got me to thinking.
Thousands upon thousands of Eastern Ontarians commute into Ottawa each day to work in the federal public service. The traffic volumes on the region's two 400-series highways are a testament to the commuting patterns in the region. There's also little debate over the growing traffic jams on the roads.
I began to think about this conversation the other day when I stumbled across another conversation on YouTube. The commenters spoke of how silly it was that no one stepped in in 1997 to save the old CP Prescott Subdivision between Kemptville and Ottawa. Another commenter questioned why the dormant CN Beachburg Subdivision between Nepean Junction and the Pontiac Region in Quebec hasn't been eyed for a regional rail commuting service.
It seems painfully obvious that the last remnants of the CN Beachburg Sub north of Nepean Junction will be gone before long, even though it has managed to remain intact this summer, much to my surprise.
In 2009, a group that once operated the Ottawa Central Railway attempted to purchase the remnants of the Beachburg Subdivision. I recall interviewing James Allen, the former general manager of the OCR, for a story I wrote for a local news website. In addition to establishing immediate freight service for a wood pellet plant in Pontiac, Que., Allen said there were plans for a regional commuter service between Renfrew County, the Pontiac Region and Ottawa. It would be focused on those who work in Ottawa and live in the valley (what locals call the area northwest of Ottawa).
Unfortunately, rails were lifted from Pembroke all the way to the Quebec border. The remainder of the rails to Nepean Junction also seem to be on their way out, despite some very measured and sensible arguments about the importance of this infrastructure to the future of the region. Sadly, Ottawa has expressed no interest in this line, even though city staff said they would be interested in buying the land for a recreational trail. If this city valued its rail infrastructure as much as it values its trail network, local transit would not be such a challenge.
The obstacles to regional rail in Eastern Ontario are formidable. The National Capital Region spans two provinces, which means a number of provincial policies would need to be streamlined for a regional service to operate across the Ottawa River. Don't count on this. Ottawa and Gatineau can't even agree what to do with the Prince of Wales railway bridge, which has sat dormant and neglected for years.
Another significant barrier would be how this system would be funded. Would municipalities have to buy in on their own dime? Would the service be funded through the Ontario government like GO? How would it be funded if it crossed over into Quebec? How would it operate in conjunction with the existing Ottawa bus and O-Train service? How would it operate around other rail operations like Via and CN in the capital region?
These are all tough questions, but it seems to me that some have remarkably straightforward answers. Toronto's transit system is far from perfect, but I have never heard anything bad about the GO Trains. Having taken GO Trains before, I can vouch for their reliability and convenience. It seems that this is a conversation worth having in this region.
Why? Well, Ottawa's main expressway, the Queensway, is being widened in the city's east end, but it's obvious that the highway has no room left to expand in many spots through the city. The city's planned Confederation Line O-Train expansion will not be open until 2017. And the new east-west line will operate from Tunney's Pasture to Blair, on brand new trackage. These areas of the city are sparsely populated at best.
Tunney's Pasture is a warren of outdated government office buildings, with very little connection to nearby neighbourhoods. And it has the advantage of being fairly close to the downtown core. It is already well served by the existing bus commuter road, the Transitway. How this area became the western terminus for the new O-Train line is beyond me. It is by no means underserved.
Blair, the city's east end, is a commercial area with lots of commercial development, but very little housing in the immediate vicinity. Again, I struggle to understand how this became the eastern terminus.
The existing north-south O-Train line, from Bayview Station to Greenboro Station, is well used. There has been talk about extending this line, which was once the CP Ellwood and Prescott Sub. Existing trackage has been left in place all the way to Leitrim Road, which is a road in the city's south end, relatively close to the Riverside South neighbourhood, which is crying out for better transit options. The city owns the old CP right-of-way to Osgoode, a community in the city's mainly rural southern countryside. Why the rails were never retained along this right-of-way is a real head scratcher. The city now faces the possibility of having to install a new rail line along the old CP right-of-way, just to reach Riverside South and other developing communities in Ottawa's southern suburbs like Greeley and Manotick. The lack of vision is astounding.
Taking all of this into consideration, it seems to me that regional rail could still be done in Eastern Ontario, provided the political will and vision is there.
Unfortunately, this might be the biggest obstacle of all.