Greig: Southern Ontario farmers protest high-speed rail impact

A power corridor that runs from London to Kitchener, Ont. has been a silent neighbour for many who farm in that area.

But it’s looking a lot more menacing to them lately, as the likely route for a proposed high-speed rail line from London to Toronto, with stops in Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph.

Farmers in the area between Woodstock and Tavistock recently got together to talk about what the rail line could mean to their farms and communities and they didn’t like what they saw.

The group then quickly organized a meeting which resulted in 180 people standing in the Bickle family farm’s drive shed near Tavistock, Ont. on Friday.

“Although this project has many benefits to citizens of larger centres, what is it doing for our rural communities or small towns of Ontario?” asked Jessica Bickle, questioning why the rail line wouldn’t stop at regional cities such as Stratford or Woodstock.

Bickle and other speakers listed a number of concerns about the potential project, currently pegged at $20 billion:

  • Most rural roads would have to be dead-ended at the rail line for safety reasons, with trains running at 250 km/h. A few overpasses would be built on major roads. That would mean farmers would have to travel a long way out of their way, and on major roads, to reach other farms, or fields now just up the road.
  • There is concern with the impact on rural safety with the ability of emergency response to reach farms when rural roads have been cut off.
  • School travel times would be greatly increased with closed roads.
  • Thousands of acres of prime farmland would have to be taken out of production with the 80-foot rights-of-way needed for a high-speed train.
  • The cost of the project is significantly under-budgeted. Ken Westcar, who was there representing Transport Action Ontario, said a similar distance high-speed rail project in England from London to Birmingham is budgeted at $88 billion and is expected to cost much more than that. Timelines for construction are also excessively optimistic, he said.
  • There would be significant impact on tile and other drainage systems in the area.
  • There are already three rail lines between Toronto and London and more efficient management of those lines could improve current service.
  • There would be significant impact on wildlife and wildlife corridors.

Don McKay, mayor of East Zorra-Tavistock, encouraged strong protest against the high-speed rail project, but also said proposing and supporting alternatives, such as improving current VIA Rail service, is also important.

“Only you people can bring about change,” he said.

The meeting was intended to create discussion, bring the issue to the attention to the media, and start work in protesting the rail line’s impact, but the organizers never expected to get 180 people.

Greg Gormick, also from Transport Action, and considered one of the country’s experts in rail transportation, called the high-speed line “unnecessary and it will create damage clear across the route.”

He told the group that the proposal is political and tied to the coming provincial election.

“This needs to be dealt with at the Legislature. You need to make it a political issue. I don’t think this will get built.”

Gormick proposed what he calls high-performance rail, which includes running the current systems more efficiently.

One of the largest problems with VIA Rail performance is that its trains run in the Windsor-Toronto corridor on tracks owned by Canadian National Railway (CN), so freight gets precedence.

Steve Veldman, a director with the Oxford County Federation of Agriculture, said the Ontario Federation of Agriculture also has some concerns with the proposal and issued a memorandum to leaders in the affected counties.

“This could have a big impact on agriculture’s ability to feed a growing population,” he said.

The high-speed rail issue is another of many that has pitted urban versus rural in Ontario, a point made by several speakers.

“Unfortunately, now more than ever we are seeing a divide in Ontario. You have Toronto, larger centres surround it and small towns surrounding them,” said Bickle.

“Time and time again we are seeing rural community issues being put to the wayside because of the Liberals’ lavish spending that will only benefit their voters.”

— John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia based at Ailsa Craig, Ont. Follow him at @jgreig on Twitter.

Farmers look over the potential route of a high speed rail line from London to Toronto. The route goes through many of their farms. (John Greig photo)

Jessica Bickle was one of several speakers who addressed the meeting. (John Greig photo)

 

About the author

Field editor

John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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