Friday, October 26, 2018

Election post mortem: Four more years of disappointing railway policy

I wasn’t at all surprised with the results of the Ottawa municipal election. In the absence of any real challenger, our mayor was re-elected for a third term. In the aftermath of the election, there were a few comments that I found quite interesting, especially when it comes to the issue of commuter rail in Eastern Ontario.

For now, the Beachburg Sub will remain largely lifeless. Although some think a regional commuter system along the lines of GO Transit is inevitable on this line. 

1. Although Clive Doucet lost the mayoral race handily, he is earning some plaudits for raising the possibility of regional rail for Eastern Ontario. Although I often did not find myself agreeing with Doucet when he was a city councillor, I agree with his regional rail idea. After the election, he said he was confident that Ottawa will see regional rail, along the lines of the GO Train in the Toronto area. His point was simple. Given that the Ottawa-Gatineau area now boasts more than 1.3 million people, the area is now probably big enough to sustain some form of commuter rail operation. I’m not sure if Doucet made those comments based on something he knows, but I like that he said it. I am less optimistic. I don’t see any regional rail champion in Ottawa. Everyone is aboard the LRT bandwagon, as flawed as it is.

2. For months, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about the city’s LRT plan that bothers me. Doucet, to his credit, made this simple observation during the campaign that sums up what I feel. Phase I is too short. I have often remarked on this blog that emptying out Ottawa’s eastern suburban commuters at Blair Station and its western suburbs at Tunney’s Pasture really doesn’t benefit anyone in the short term. It only adds another step, and likely time, to my morning commute. It does nothing to take buses off the roads in the suburbs. So who does Phase I benefit? The downtown and the communities in and around the core like Westboro, Hintonburg, Wellington West, Vanier and Sandy Hill. The LRT will take the express commuter buses off the roads in those neighbourhoods, but it does nothing for massive communities like Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven in the short term. Considering how many delays there have been with the first phase of the Confederation Line, it seems to me that it might have been a better idea to take several more years and combine Phase I and II together. At least then, the new LRT line would connect Orleans in the east and Moodie Drive in the west.

I'm not sure if it will take $25 million to reconnect the Trillium Line with the Prince of Wales Bridge, but it seems like a little foresight could have prevented the future costs.

3. It emerged during the mayoral race that it will likely require $40 million to rehabilitate the Prince of Wales Bridge to make it fit for trains again. Doucet’s campaign also estimated that reconnecting the trackage over the Ottawa River to the existing O-Train Trillium Line would cost $25 million. I’m not sure where they came up with that figure, but it seems high to me. However, I think the larger point here is that the city will have to pay dearly for its lack of foresight on this strategic rail asset that it has owned and neglected for years.

4. Surprisingly, amid the debate over commuter rail during the election campaign, there was very little said about the Moose Consortium, which has been fighting with the city over its neglect of the bridge and the connection of the bridge’s rails to the Trillium Line. You will recall that Moose won an important victory over the city not too long ago, which had forced the city to scramble.

5. One point that Doucet made during the campaign that really struck me as brilliant was his point about the viability of a regional rail system. While Watson’s camp dismissed Doucet’s plan constantly, Doucet raised the point that thousands of commuters from outlying communities like Limoges, Smiths Falls, Chelsea, Wakefield, Kemptville and Arnprior all make their way into Ottawa each day and chew up our roads, without having to pay for their maintenance. While it’s true that a regional rail system would require a substantial subsidy from all the municipalities involved, is it not better to get these cars off the roads and get these commuters paying some sort of fare to ride a train to work? At least under this system, we would be getting some sort of compensation from those who make their way into Ottawa whereas now, we get nothing.

6. Parts of Doucet’s plans called for commuter rail to parts of Kanata North, which would have been a good idea several years ago when the city had the chance to buy a small portion of the old CN Beachburg Subdivision. Sadly, nothing happened and those rails are gone. I feel bad for residents of Kanata. All this spending on light rail and they will see no benefits whatsoever for many years still. Their only hope might be some sort of connection via the old Renfrew Sub near March Road.

It was an interesting mayoral race, which had me agreeing with politicians I have never agreed with in the past. I would really like to believe Mr. Doucet that regional rail is an idea whose time has come, but I think we are now stuck with four more years of leadership that truly has no understanding of railway policy.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Stittsville is not part of regional rail plan after all

Well, it seems we weren’t the only ones who were wondering what Mayoral candidate Clive Doucet had in mind when he outlined his regional rail transit plan, which seemed to indicate that Stittsville would be served by the old CP Carleton Place Subdivision.

Stittsville Central took a look at the same map we did and wondered whether Mr. Doucet indeed intends to connect the exploding western suburb via the old CP line, which is now part of the Trans Canada Trail.

It turns out, that the old CP line between Bells Corners and Stittsville will remain a trail. In response to Stittsville Central’s question, Mr. Doucet’s campaign has suggested that Stittsville be served via a connection to Kinburn via the Renfrew Spur rail line.

This also seems to solve a similar geographical issue in the city’s east end, where Vars and Navan are connected via a non-existent rail line.

Getting back to Stittsville, I have to say that I don’t see the logic to suggesting Stittsville will be served by a connection in Kinburn. Any quick look at a map of Ottawa’s west end will know that Kinburn is by no means a neighbour to Stittsville, since it is closer to Carp. That begs the question why the Doucet campaign would link Stittsville with Kinburn. Of course, it’s politically convenient to suggest to Stittsville residents that they will be first in line to be connected to a regional rail system, but a connection via Kinburn makes little sense, since it’s not exactly located between Stittsville and downtown Ottawa, which would make the most sense to a commuter.

If anyone is expecting passenger rail to return to Stittsville via the old Carleton Place Sub, think again. Plans to connect the suburb do not include this old rail line, pictured in 1972 when it hosted CP Rail's Canadian.

In a radio interview this week, Mr. Doucet also backed off some of his planning for regional rail connections in Gatineau. His map shows connections as far away as Chelsea, which would require a rail line be re-established on the old CP Maniwaki Sub. Mr. Doucet said the regional system will go as far as Place du Portage in downtown Hull. Since I now work in downtown Hull, I can say that the terminus will be much more likely be Terraces de la Chaudière, which is not the same as Place du Portage.

This is about as far as Clive Doucet's regional rail will go, according to his latest comments. The brown buildings on the left are realistically the end point of his Quebec connection.

This is all academic, of course. I would be shocked if Mr. Doucet was all that close to incumbent Jim Watson.

Still, I have to give Mr. Doucet for being the first politician to champion regional rail. It was nice while it lasted.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Via Rail's 40th anniversary special in Sarnia

My brother Marc recently took his son to see Via Rail Canada's 40th anniversary special. I'll let my brother take it from here - Michael

There was a low-key Via Rail visit in Sarnia this past August. Via had planned to make stops in various communities to showcase their service, which provided a great opportunity to re-familiarize myself with rail travel.

Via also made this a community-minded event, by holding a ceremony in partnership with Sarnia’s RAIL (Rail Advocacy in Lambton), a grassroots lobby group, whose purpose is to increase and improve the level of train and bus service in Sarnia-Lambton. Via’s staff donated and planted seven trees in Centennial Park, where CN’s lightly-used Point Edward Spur runs through, servicing Sarnia’s harbour and docks. (The last time Via ventured onto this spur was when the Grey Cup Centennial train visited Sarnia in 2015 - Michael).

The RAIL group is credited for several improvements in the area. They brought attention to the neglected train station (since restored), and had passenger service reinstated at the Wyoming passenger station.

Via’s staff hosted tours in Centennial Park on a rainy summer day. Friendly staff greeted guests, showing off the dome car, a coach car, and a lounge car (Via's Glenfraser).

Engine 6454 idled for our event, sporting the 40th livery. This train usually operates the Halifax run, according to the engineer. Waterfront condos are seen in the background, along Sarnia’s Front Street.

The staff kept kids busy with the cardboard Via trains I remember getting as a kid in the 1980s. There was an entertainer for them too, making balloon animals and telling jokes. He was a real hit with the kids. In the dome car, a young staffer answered questions and took pictures.

I am used to traveling by air, so it was a bit of a surprise to see how dated the coaches are inside. They are clean and in a good state of repair, so it’s not a criticism. I can imagine this is a very nice way to travel, taking in the scenery. Certainly more room than an airline seat.

Sarnia’s Historical Society took advantage of this gathering to show off Bullet Nosed Betty, on static display at Centennial Park. 6069 has been under restoration for several years by a dedicated group of volunteers. The gates were open, and guests were allowed to check out the inside. This was the first time in ages that the inside of this steam locomotive was accessible to the public.

My son loves checking out trains, so this was a thrill. A rainy day was not stopping him!

A CN retiree was on hand to talk about 6069. He was one of the last engineers to operate this old workhorse.

He was very kind to my son, and let him wear his hat. He gave us a tour, showing us the basics of steam operation.

Thanks to VIA for bringing this tour to Sarnia. It was well attended by kids and adults alike, with politicians mingling in. Note Sarnia Bay and the Government Docks in the background (top left). This spur terminates at the waterfront.

Thanks to my brother for the recap. It sounded like a fun event. Certainly it might prove useful in helping RAIL secure another passenger train for Sarnia, which now has only one arrival and departure a day. -Michael