Ontario farmers want voice on high-speed rail

Ontario farmers and rural residents want a place on the advisory board on the creation of a high-speed railway line expected to significantly affect their farms and communities.

The province has appointed business, municipal and indigenous groups to the board, but farm organizations, such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), are calling for representation of their interests.

“It goes across our land, our farmland, so we should be consulted on how it is going to impact us,” said Crispin Colvin, a director-at-large with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. “We can be part of the solution, but the government has to include us.

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“You wouldn’t build a high-rise in the city without consulting all the other people around it, why would government not be willing to consult farmers?”

OFA president Keith Currie has requested agriculture involvement through the agriculture minister’s office, he said.

Colvin represented the OFA at a town hall meeting at the Purple Hill Country Hall east of London late last year. More than 250 farmers and rural residents attended the meeting organized by Thames Centre Coun. Kelly Elliott, with help from local OFA associations.

The provincial government has ordered a $15 million environmental assessment of a high-speed rail line from Windsor to Toronto. There have been four years set aside for the environmental assessment, then construction from London to Toronto, through Kitchener, from 2022 to 2025, with the Windsor-to-London line ready by 2031.

Farmers are worried because, with the line running at up to 250 km/h, there can be no road crossings and the line will be fenced off from animals and people. With overpasses only at major roads, that means farming systems tied by back roads for generations will be cut off. The system would also adversely affect wildlife. Each mile of new track would take 12 acres of land, most of it farmland.

George Taylor, farmer and owner of the Purple Hill Country Hall, gave the example of his son, who hauled corn from a 200-acre property nearby.

“He would go down the 5th and up the sideroad to Triple D Farms,” said Taylor, but the high-speed rail line would cut through the middle of that route and add 10 to 12 miles to his trip.

There are also concerns about school busing, road plowing and emergency response times with so many roads cut off.

“This is nothing but an election ploy and we’re having to fight it with our lives,” Taylor told the meeting.

The only current proposed route from London to Kitchener is along the electricity corridor between the two cities.

The ability to move more people to Toronto from further away from the city is contrary to the province’s goal of creating “complete communities” where people live and work, Colvin said.

There have been few studies anywhere of the rural impacts of high-speed rail, he said, other than one which talked about such impacts in a proposal for a link between Calgary and Edmonton.

“An agricultural impact assessment has to be done for this project,” he said.

There are alternatives, said Ken Westcar, a transportation activist, who said that the real problem is with VIA Rail and the fact that it has to run on Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail lines where freight traffic gets the priority.

Putting in a dedicated passenger line beside the freight lines would be a first step. Buying faster trains that run at the rail’s capacity would be another.

Restoring VIA trains that were cut by the federal government cost-cutting in 2012 would also help, said Westcar, who called the VIA Rail board of directors an “ossified dumping ground for Liberal hacks.”

Some at the meeting called the high-speed rail technology “outdated” as the first high-speed rail lines were built in the 1960s. There are several groups around the world rapidly developing the hyperloop concept, where a passenger car would ride inside a depressurized tube, floating along with magnetic propulsion at up to 1,000 km/h. The tube can be either above or below ground.

There are no hyperloops operating yet, but U.S.-based Hyperloop One is aiming for a 2021 start somewhere in the world.

A Toronto company, TransPod, is also hoping to build hyperloops, and it has said it should be able to build a hyperloop from Windsor to Toronto for half the price and two-thirds the operating costs of high-speed rail.

Colvin pointed out that the reports written by David Collenette, former federal transport minister and high-speed rail advocate, say other technologies may supersede high speed rail and shouldn’t be ignored.

Elliott invited the provincial transportation ministry’s High Speed Rail Team to attend the meeting, but they declined. She encouraged farmers to give input by emailing [email protected] and by talking to their local MPPs.

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

Over 250 people came out to a November 2017 meeting east of London, Ont. hear about the impact of a high-speed rail corridor going through their communities. (John Greig photo)

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John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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