Use rail in mid-peninsula

Jan. 30, 12:35 EDT
Clubs to discuss alternative to costly highway tomorrow
Douglas Thwaites
The Hamilton Spectator
Reuters File Photo

Transport 2000 and the Sierra Club believe hourly rail service at speeds of 110 km/h would compete successfully with car-truck travel on the QEW and eliminate the need for the construction of a much more costly mid-peninsula highway.

The provincial government claims that the proposed $1.5-billion mid-peninsula highway, which would run along the spine of the Niagara Escarpment from Fort Erie to Burlington, is needed to reduce congestion on the QEW. But freight and passenger traffic on the QEW can be accommodated much more cheaply and with greater efficiency on rail transport.

An investment of just under 10 per cent of the $1.5 billion earmarked for the mid-peninsula highway could fund higher-speed passenger rail service that would attract passengers from the freeway system. The transit alternative to the mid-peninsula highway, as described below, would save Ontario taxpayer dollars by avoiding construction of a new highway, and boost economic development while protecting the environment.

Increased rail capacity required for this passenger service would also accommodate increased inter-modal freight traffic.

The current Via Rail schedules between Toronto and Niagara Falls provide only two departures each way, at speeds in the 60 to 70 km/h range. At these speeds, and existing train frequencies, VIA cannot attract many passengers from the freeway system.

But hourly rail service at speeds of 110 km/h would compete successfully with car travel on the QEW and eliminate the need for the mid-peninsula highway. We propose that hourly train service to Niagara Falls via Hamilton could be provided by the existing Via Rail, with the addition of GO Transit trains during the summer months to meet peak tourist travel demands expected at that time of year.

This analysis, based on Ontario government data, indicates that an hourly frequency rail service is a valuable investment and that riders will pay most if not all of the operating costs. Minimal capital costs are required to initiate this service. The environmental and economic benefits will justify all the expected capital costs of this alternative to the construction of a new freeway through the peninsula.

Higher speed and increased frequencies would attract higher volumes of riders from the road system. Enough drivers would leave their cars to reduce the number of hours of extreme congestion on the QEW between Hamilton and Niagara Falls.

The locomotives recently purchased by Via Rail Canada can attain speeds of nearly 200 km/h. Therefore we suggest that, using existing equipment, the travel time from Niagara Falls to Toronto could be reduced from an hour and 50 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, less time than it takes to drive the same route at the average peak hour speed of 50 to 60 km/h on the QEW.

This may require modifications to the track configuration and the signal system. These systems will also be required to accommodate an increased number of freight trains, particularly between Burlington junction and Hamilton junction on the Niagara Falls services. The capital cost of these improvements is estimated at about $100 million in the section of track that is of primary benefit to the Niagara Peninsula, which will delay or eliminate the need for the investment of $1.5 billion in the mid-peninsula highway.

This work could be done in the next 18 months, permitting the service to begin in the summer of 2004. All it takes is the will, and an agreement between the affected parties -- the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, the federal Transport Department and their agents, GO Transit, Via Rail Canada and CN Rail.

With these modifications to the track and schedule, 20,000 road passengers could be shifted from the QEW onto rail each peak travel day (Saturdays and Sundays in the summer). Removing vehicles from the road cuts road maintenance and public service costs, need for parking spaces and accidents. Taken together, these savings add up to $40 million per year thanks to the provision of this rail passenger service.

The increased rail passenger service can lead to increased prosperity in the Hamilton-Niagara corridor, attracting travellers from the highway system. The highway system will operate with less congestion and reduced travel time with lower travel costs. Thus the benefits of higher speed rail services will be shared by the remaining road users as well.

GO Transit has shown that frequent, reliable transit service is used intensively by commuters and occasional travellers, for both business and personal travel.

Concern over truck traffic on the QEW is one of the primary reasons for promoting the mid-peninsula highway, according to the provincial government. But why spend $1.5 billion on a highway no one wants when polluting truck traffic could be diverted from roads onto energy efficient railways at a fraction of the highway cost?

This report shows that a small investment could preserve and enhance rail freight service that could out-compete truck transport.

Our research has shown that diverting truck traffic from the QEW and 401 onto the Canada Southern (CASO) Railway Line for shipments between Fort Erie/Buffalo and Windsor/Detroit could save businesses time and money.

The CASO is a 360-kilometre high-speed line which offers a direct connection across southern Ontario between Buffalo and Detroit. It is an ideal route to carry some of the 175,000 trucks that travel each year through Ontario between these major American industrial centres. A piggyback rail service between these two points would take only 4 1/2 hours because the CASO, known as the crown jewel of rail lines, is short, level and straight. Since trains are pre-approved for border crossing, they can avoid costly delays at international customs. In contrast, it takes a truck at least five hours to make the same trip on the 50-kilometre-longer route via the QEW, 403, and 401, not including border delays.

We have found that a CASO service of eight departures each way per day would attract time-sensitive shipments that are frequently sent by road. At an absolute minimum, a revitalized CASO could reduce by 10 per cent the 6,000 trucks crossing the Niagara River each day. About 50 per cent of the steel and other materials shipped by truck to and from mills at Nanticoke could be drawn to the CASO. Interviews with General Motors in Detroit suggest that the company could shift 60 per cent of the freight it now ships in trucks to the faster service of the CASO.

But as you read this, CASO owners -- CN and CP railways -- are ripping up an 134-kilometre section in the middle of the track between Welland and Saint Thomas. CN is behind the removal of this section of the CASO because it does not want any competition from American railways such as Amtrak, Norfolk Southern or CSX, which used to run trains over much of the CASO to reach Chicago or the Eastern Seaboard. The land will either be sold off to adjoining landowners or in sections to local municipalities.

Seven local municipalities tried to purchase the 134-kilometre section of the CASO line that is being ripped up, as they view the line as necessary to economic development. Nine municipalities passed resolutions recommending that no rail be removed.

Despite their pleas, these municipalities received no financial assistance from the provincial and federal governments to meet the $9-million price of the doomed section of the CASO.

Transport 2000 and the Sierra Club call on the provincial and federal governments to each contribute $4.5 million to purchase the 134-kilometre section and stop its destruction. Further, we would like an investment of about $100 million, or less than 10 per cent of the $1.5 billion price tag for the mid-peninsula highway, to revitalize the CASO to a competitive, high-speed service. This will require re-laying the lifted sections of track and replacing rail ties, railway level crossing protection and providing modern signaling systems throughout the 134-kilometre section.

Transport 2000 and the Sierra Club oppose the mid-peninsula highway because it would destroy chunks of the Niagara Escarpment, a UN World Biosphere Reserve. It will boost the death toll from road fatalities and increased air pollution. The road will elevate carbon dioxide emissions at a time when we are trying to curb this greenhouse gas under the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty.

Fortunately, enhanced rail transport of goods and people provides an easy way out of our transportation woes.

Transport 2000 and The Sierra Club invite you to a public meeting, on the topic, The Transit Alternative to the Mid-Peninsula Highway, at Hamilton City Hall council chambers at 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Douglas Thwaites, P.Eng, M.Sc., lives in Brampton. He writes on behalf of Transport 2000 Canada (a public-transportation advocacy group) and the Sierra Club of Canada. He has a 40-year career in transportation planning included time with the City of Hamilton.

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