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The sudden rural backlash to a high-speed rail system that would cut across a wide swath of Southwestern Ontario has found an unlikely ally in the region’s longest-serving mayor, who’s got his own issues with passenger rail service.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, previously a proponent of high-speed rail, said he doesn’t want to the see the proposed Toronto-London-Windsor system go ahead unless upgrades are also made to passenger rail service.
He’s sympathetic to the growing opposition to the high-speed rail plan.
“Rural residents in Southwestern Ontario feel they’ve been kicked around . . . they feel totally disenfranchised,” Bradley said, citing wind turbines and green energy projects as a prime example.
“Queen’s Park is trying to impose all sort of things on this region and I think people are just reaching that tipping point and saying ‘we’re going to make our concerns known right now.’”
Sarnia, which wouldn’t be directly situated on the high-speed rail corridor but could be a “feeder” community that connects to the line, is particularly desperate for passenger rail service.
“We have one train in and one train out a day,” Bradley said. “People are prisoners in their communities, especially when we get into the winter months.”
He’s made no secret of the fact that his city is desperate for higher frequency train service. That should be the priority — not a lofty high-speed rail dream, Bradley said.
But deputy premier and Liberal MPP Deb Matthews said her government is committed to the project, and argued there would be “huge benefits” for urban and rural Ontario.
“We’ve going to address some of the challenges that have been raised by various people,” she said, pointing to the environmental assessment process currently underway. “There’s a lot of work that’s going to have to happen before we start construction, and we will be paying close attention to the concerns people have.”
Matthews said she was surprised to see such a severe backlash from farmers and rural politicians.
“I guess I find it disappointing that there would be opposition to it when we’re in that planning phase,” she said. “We’re committed to doing it right.”
Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) is skeptical.
“I’ve long said that the promise of high-speed rail is yet another election ploy,” he said.
Though he sees the value of a rail system that could reduce congestion on the 400-series highways and offer “opportunities,” McNaughton said he heard rising resistance from farmers in his riding this summer.
Bradley thinks the project is decades away from completion.
“It’s a mammoth undertaking,” he said. “When you look at how these systems are developed elsewhere, they usually run in conjunction with existing transportation corridors. Here they just seem to want to slice through the countryside,” Bradley said.
HIGH SPEED RAIL
- 350 km high-speed rail system between Toronto and Windsor, with stops in Kitchener, Guelph, London and Chatham.
- Price tag: about $20 billion.
- Full system could be running by 2031.
- Rural residents concerned about rail lines running through their farms and truncating roads, especially for emergency services.
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