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High-speed rail plan takes shape

by Johathan Sher - LONDON FREE  PRESS
 Pssst Londoners: do you want a glimpse of where high-speed rail might go through the city?

Location of tracks, number of trains and cost of a ticket: All are laid out in a report on ambitious plans to cut in half the time it takes to go from London to Toronto.

“This looks to be an unusually easy route for a high-speed rail line, about as easy as you can get, in fact, both in terms of construction, and community,” wrote Michael Schabas, a rail consultant with First Class Partnerships, whose team wrote the report for Ontario’s Transportation Ministry.

Trains should be stored and maintained in London, possible at the Electro-Motive Diesel plant on Oxford St. that closed in 2012, he wrote.

Ontario officials announced last week they were sufficiently convinced to take the first major step by conducting an environmental assessment.

The assessment may take six years, but in the meantime, the early report has created a buzz at city hall.

“High-speed rail could be a game-changer,” London Mayor Matt Brown said Wednesday. “This report represents the beginning of the conversation with the community of what it might look like.”

The consultants suggested two ways for high-speed trains to enter London and get downtown. The first would enter the city from the east on new tracks built just north of the current CN tracks now shared by freight and Via Rail.

The second would enter from the northeast, following a path on tracks from Stratford, crossing Oxford St. at Clarke Rd. and Dundas St. just east of Hale St. before curving sharply right.

The two routes merge at Egerton St., and then continue west to what could be a new $100-million station.

Though the first option is two kilometres longer, the consultants prefer it because there aren’t any sharp curves, the 30-metre corridor seems wide enough to add two high-speed tracks, and there aren’t rail sidings to the north to store or load freight trains.

Once a route through the city is chosen, the province must decide whether to elevate the tracks or dig a path so trains can be below street level — the latter is less of an eyesore but might add $200 million to the tab.

But though such decisions are years away, Ontario Liberals say there’s reason for excitement. “High-speed rail would be a great benefit to our community and would be a tremendous economic boost to Southwestern Ontario,” said Deb Matthews, Ontario’s deputy premier and MPP for London North Centre.

Critics of the plans argue the cost may be prohibitive, but the head of a rail advocacy group, High Speed Rail Canada, said its time to pay the piper.

“It’s going to cost a lot because we’re a half century behind,” Paul Langan said.

There have been about a dozen reports over the years on high-speed rail, but none proposed specific routes until now. “This one really gives people a snapshot of what the future can be,” he said.