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Small Canadian town awarded high-speed rail

(The following story by Tess Kalinowski and Isabel Teotonio appeared on the Toronto Star website on February 28.)

TORONTO — At least 900 Durham and Peterborough-area commuters are about to get the kind of rail service to Union Station that would make thousands of transit-hungry GTA commuters cry with envy.

But how did a city of 80,000 receive unspecified millions in federal funding in Tuesday's budget to restore a high-speed link that VIA abandoned in 1990 after federal budget cuts?

Some observers note the line will run through or near the ridings of several Conservative MPs, including the Whitby-Oshawa riding of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

"I've been saying for so long it's time they started paying attention to Durham. If it means it's because we have some Conservative MPs we're getting this, I say, `Thank God,'" responded Durham Region chair Roger Anderson.

But in Toronto, reaction among transit officials was surprise, with some underlying disappointment that there wasn't more in the budget for the projects outlined last June in the province's $18 billion MoveOntario 2020 plan.

There are no details about the rail link in the budget, which was mentioned in Flaherty's speech as part of a $500 million package for public transit. It's expected to cost about $150 million to restore the rail bed and tracks to Peterborough, based on a CP estimate, plus the cost of a new station and equipment.

Nine hundred riders is the minimum number who would be served by the Peterborough link, according to Dean Del Mastro, Peterborough's rookie MP, who is being credited locally for the strong push that got Flaherty's support.

"The GTA should be absolutely celebrating this. It's a great news story for everyone, right from Peterborough, right through the Durham Region, right through downtown Toronto," he said.

He contends the train could take 500,000 cars a year off the road between Peterborough and Toronto. Based on GO's prices, he suggests a monthly pass for the 60- to 90-minute trip would cost about $500.

"Rail transit is environmentally friendly," Flaherty said yesterday when questioned about the utility of the Peterborough-Toronto link.

"This is an existing railway that is not being used for commuter traffic," he added. "This is the way to go."

But no one, from the rail companies to Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley, had details on exactly how the Peterborough train would operate.

GO, which says Peterborough is outside its service area, had no plans to offer Peterborough service even though a new GO service to Barrie was introduced in December.

"Every business case for a new station is unique," said spokesperson Stephanie Sorensen. "GO evaluates various factors, including existing ridership on the corridor, size of community, expected growth of community, cost, success of bus service in that area, and GO's long-term plans. Other levels of government also play a critical role – municipal, provincial and federal."

Metrolinx, the Toronto region's transportation planning agency, has been waiting for some kind of federal funding, said chair Rob MacIsaac. It has asked Ottawa to use the federal surplus to support transit but was referred to a fund that he says is insufficient.

Metrolinx will look for ways to connect its system to the Peterborough line but, "This is not our preferred approach to transportation. We think you need to invest in systems rather than projects," he said.

CP, which owns the track and operates GO's Milton line, hasn't even figured out how the train headed north out of Union Station will make the switch to an eastbound track, south of Lawrence Ave. near the Don Valley, said spokesperson Michel Spenard. The two aren't linked.

Back before the old Peterborough run was eliminated, it stopped in places like Cavan, Dranoel, Manvers, Pontypool, Burketon, Myrtle, Dagmar and Claremont, as well as stations within the GTA such as Locust Hill, Agincourt and Leaside.

Spenard couldn't say where the new train might stop or how often it would run. "The furthest I could go is, "We're reviewing the budget and we're looking at what kind of effect this would have on our operations."

VIA spokesperson Catherine Kaloutsky said, "What this means to us at this point at time I can't say."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

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