From trains to trails; what is the best use for Ontario’s aging rail corridors? 

By Rachel Morgan – Reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative/Alexis Wright
08/14/2022 – Brampton, Mississauga

Trains offer a fascinating connection to the past. Screaming and dragging along rusted metal rails, these lumbering metal giants carried the goods and people responsible for building the nation from the ground up. Today’s trains – sleeker, cleaner, faster – are a world away from the coal-powered behemoths of the past, but for years rail travel struggled to shake this historic reputation as an aging mode of transportation. Now that’s changing fast. Rail transport is increasingly becoming the means of transport of the future. With light rail systems appearing in major cities around the world—about 150 and counting—city planners and transportation professionals are increasingly turning to rail for answers to the transportation problems that plague all major cities. In Peel, the Hurontario LRT is a perfect example.

Because of this, the Peel Region’s decision to decommission a well-known GTA railway and convert it into a nature trail raised many questions among public transport advocates who believed the system could provide an important transport link in the future.

The 51km Orangeville-Brampton (OBRY) Rail Corridor was acquired by the Peel Region in July for US$5.8 million. Prior to the purchase, the corridor was maintained by the City of Orangeville and six freight companies that still used the tracks. Orangeville bought the corridor in 2000 fearing its abandonment. But since then, the city government has squandered revenue keeping the tracks operational, spending about $450,000 a year. After one of the remaining freight companies decided to switch its primary mode of transportation from rail to truck in late 2021, it was the final nail in the coffin and the city’s decision to sell the rails was final.

The region has provided few details on its plans for the rail corridor, saying only that it will convert it into a path system.

The last train crossed the rails in December 2021. In just under nine months, nature has consumed large parts of the rusty metal pipes.

The City of Caledon has issued public statements warning residents to stay off the tracks. While the danger of a passing train is no longer there – the danger that became all too real earlier this month when a 4-year-old was killed on GO tracks in Mississauga– The tracks and their various structures can still be unsafe. The corridor is currently closed to the public.

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“The corridor has just been transferred to public ownership and the existing rails and railroad ties and significant bridge structures remain and therefore pose a public safety concern,” the city told The Pointer in an email.

South of Willoughby Road in Caledon, a railway bridge spans the Credit River, one of the many landmarks along the corridor that could offer stunning views of a future trail system. The new trail will complement a vast existing trail network in the region and will add a north-south corridor linking the east-west network of the Caledon Trailway, the Trans Canada Trail, the Bruce Trail, the Oak Ridges Moraine Trail, the Humber Valley Heritage Trail and connects the Green Belt Bike Trail.

The city also noted that the new path will provide space to implement more broadband infrastructure, expand tourism and employment opportunities, and promote the health and well-being of residents.

Spending time in nature does wonders for the mind and body. In its mission statement, the Trans Canada Trail states that it will “continue to inspire everyone to explore nature, discover the diversity of our land and our people, improve their health and well-being.”

A new trail will also reduce human impact on existing trail networks. With a growing population and a desire to get “back to nature” fueled by COVID-19 lockdowns, many of the trail systems currently in place in GTA are overstretched. According to the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, use of the preserves and trails increased 69 percent between 2019 and 2020, from around 517,000 to nearly 875,000 annually. This increase in foot traffic can lead to erosion, damage to plant life and the destruction of important habitats. Humans also bring trash and contribute to the spread of invasive species. The addition of a new pathway corridor could help offset some of this human impact.

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The trail will also provide an opportunity for larger conservation efforts. Spurge grows along the edges of the trails – a native wildflower that is the sole host species for the monarch butterfly caterpillar. a species recently classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)..

Despite the trail’s potential for conservation efforts, the crossing will require significant construction effort.

Some infrastructure, such as bridges, is already in place and can be relatively easily converted for walkers or cyclists, but this does not apply to the many roads that the future trail will cross.

The cost of building footbridges varies by size and material and could significantly increase the construction time for the project and cost millions. The future path crosses at least 15 major roads that could be dangerous for future hikers or cyclists without traffic lights or crossing aids.

The Peel Region has yet to provide a budget or timeline for the transition.

Natural benefits aside, many residents of Orangeville and in the three Peel communities are disappointed with the region’s decision to rebuild the rail line.

Transportation activists and organizations such as the Ontario Board of Trade have suggested that the tracks would be better used for a commuter rail system connecting Orangeville and Brampton. The important north-south link could offer a sustainable transit solution as the region continues to grow. Peel’s population is expected to increase by approximately 700,000 people by 2051.

The OBRY intersects with Highway 407 and the 401, making it an optimal route for quick and easy transit.

Transport Action Ontario (TAO), a non-governmental organization that advocates for rail and bus-based public transport, emphasizes that this doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.

“The happy bottom line is that rail and track can coexist in the same corridor,” said Peter Miasek, President of TAO.

Examples of the coexistence of the two modes of transport can be found throughout the province. Toronto’s Don Mills Rail Trail is a 2-mile (3 km) walking trail that partially parallels the Canadian National Railway’s Bala Division.

Miasek believes this rail corridor will be necessary in the future and that leaving the tracks in the ground will be much easier than trying to lay them years later.

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“There are many anecdotal stories about the authorities removing a train track and then when they tried to put it back 15 to 20 years later when the world had changed, there was a lot of outrage from the citizens: ‘I didn’t think that a loud train would do that running in my backyard,'” he said.

Miasek said he will continue to push for that option.

It also raises questions about how much escape this trail will provide for nature-starved residents. The Brampton area is adjacent to many commercial and industrial operations – such as gravel pits and large warehouses. Close by, one could easily see the whistling call of a northern cardinal replaced by the incessant beeping of a backing tractor-trailer, or the wind rustling the leaves of a maple tree with the grinding cogs of a bulldozer.

People trek hoping to breathe fresh air and see wildlife in their natural habitats. But in this case, just a few yards away are a recycling plant, a plastic mold maker, a foam insulation maker, car dealerships, a hydroelectric power distribution building, and several new warehouses being built along sections of the trail.

The Peel Region has yet to comment on how this corridor qualifies for a path and what they intend to do about these issues.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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