Thursday, September 18, 2014

For consideration: GO Trains in Ottawa

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.

Going, going, gone: Could this stretch of the old CP Prescott Subdivision have hosted GO Trains for Eastern Ontario commuters? Some people here think so. Too bad this rail is now gone.

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.

Could the Beachburg Subdivision see new life as a commuter line in west Ottawa? It doesn't seem like city planners see any potential for this corridor other than as a future recreational trail.

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.


AJ said...

Regional rail could easily be done in the area, but no one is talking about it. Watson seems more concerned about photo-ops and running his pet project of the fancy streetcar than getting a proper heavy rail project together. I have heard that CN wants $30 million for the Beachburg sub and Walkley Yard; throw in another 100 million for transfer point infastructure, line upgrades and platforms and you would have something that works reasonably a tenth of the cost of phase one of "light rail". I think with Watson it is more he doesn't want to pressure his friends in Toronto about shelling out for a GO system here as it would embarrass them to explain why Toronto can have one and Ottawa can't. Actually with the rumblings Go may expand to Peterborough (now that Barrie has been completed) it would be harder to explain. The interest as a rec path is a joke and is another example of pandering to the bicycle lobby that seems to be common here. Afterall, we have traffic jams, no heavy rail, but by God we have another bike path to nowhere.

What is worse is as you mention the connection to Tunney's. What gains do we get from ripping up an already respectable rapid bus transit way system (did I mention already paid for too?) to put a light rail line??? This will do nothing for the current traffic problems for two reasons - 1. We are just replacing capacity we already have on the current transitway, only in this case, instead of running a few buses more on and off the transit way if there is an added need, we are unlikely to run another train or two. 2. People (like myself) are not going to bus in from the west end and then switch off onto a train just to get downtown. In order to run a good transit system it has to be as or more convenient than personal vehicles as an incentive. Let's face it, who wants to switch onto multiple buses/trains everyday?
Mind you as someone told they will be moving to Tunney's in the next year and a half, this won't even effect me in the first place outside of making Tunney's a complete mess.
I can't even get into the Prince of Wales railway bridge because that makes so much sense to use it that it is pure stupidity we aren't.
As for the old CP Prescott Sub, the stupid part is that it will eventually be re-laid for the O-Train as the road capacity to Riverside south simply isn't going to cut it and will need massive expansion. It's far easier, faster and cost effective to put heavy rail in this area than it would be to twin roads.
BTW here is something of interest - if CN dumps Beachburg...what happens to Walkley yard? I thought the city was keeping this as a staging/storage area for the O-Train?

All I can say is that we all have to get out and spend the next month pressing candidates to answer to why we don't have a GO/heavy rail system here and why no one is using the Beachburg sub as apart of a sensible transit plan.

Michael said...

Excellent points, AJ. You hit the nail on the head. I would add that CN is only looking to discontinue service on Beachburg to Nepean Junction, which is the junction just past Corkstown Road. The remainder of the Sub, through Bells Corners up to the Renfrew Spur will still remain operational. Thanks for your comments.

AJ said...

No problem. As you can tell I am very passionate about this! Mind you it affects my day to day to, beyond the hobby side of it.
The municipality dropped the ball on heavy rail in the 90's (like through Stittsville/Kanata/Carleton Place which I think was a CP sub) and I hope we don't replicate history!

Michael said...

Great points made Michael. I strongly believe that the Beachburg / Renfrew sub would make a perfect commuter/heavy rail line. Commuters from Renfrew would love to have a GO train type system for their commute into Ottawa. Not to mention the line passes through Kanata, Bells Corners and a good chunk of Nepean which would be a great help for a huge amount of people who work downtown. Why the city of Ottawa hasn't shown any interest in this line while showing so much enthusiasm for commuter rail just boggles my mind.

Michael said...

They turned that into a rec trail! It's part of the Trans Canada Trail now. A huge opportunity lost there if you ask me! As you said, we got another bike path to no where.

Eric said...

Excellent discussion - this topic has even spilled over to Kingston, though with a western connection.

Rick Downes, a mayoral candidate in the fall municipal election, suggested GO Transit be extended to Kingston from Toronto. Roundly criticized online, we're awaiting more of his platform to see this plank fleshed out.

In Kingston's case, GO would be competing head-to-head, which would not appear to be an issue in the Ottawa discussion, at least to me.

Bearing in mind today's enviro protest in NYC, this is and should be a hot topic in our nation's capital, if not its first capital.

Michael said...

Thanks Michael and Eric for your comments. I'm really happy to see this conversation happening. I like the idea of a commuter line on the Renfrew spur. I hadn't thought of the benefits of such a line. Great idea, Michael. Eric -- I doubt Via would allow GO to extend to Kingston. Interesting idea, though. It would be an odd form of competition. Federally-subsidized Via versus provincially subsidized GO. Hmmm.

AJ said...

If I recall, in the Peterborough situation, the previous transit holder up to 1990 was VIA before it got dumped due to lack of ridership. Any in house reports since 2008 have VIA confident that it would loose approx $2m per year unless their projected ridership tripled. CP owns that line and from what I can tell, anyone looking to put service in there would have to negotiate and get their approval. The biggest question is who has jurisdiction here - VIA as the national rail carrier or GO as the intercity provincial carrier.

I also found in an article that "The federal government and province each committed as much as $150 million in July 2008 toward restoring the Havelock-Peterborough-Toronto commuter rail service." To compare, that's probably along the same numbers for a restoration of the Renfrew Spur and Beachburg Sub.