Kitchener-Waterloo

ION LRT system ready to roll as service officially launches Friday

The ION light rail transit service will begin Friday morning after a ceremonial first run. The ION will be free for people to ride until Canada Day.

'It's been a long journey. Not easy at times,' regional Coun. Tom Galloway says

Regional Coun. Tom Galloway stands beside the Ion LRT's first light rail vehicle, at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay in November 2016. (@tomjgalloway14/Twitter)

The ION light rail transit system is set to begin service Friday morning.

To mark the lengthy project coming to fruition, the Region of Waterloo has planned a special opening event, including a ceremonial first ride. That event begins at the Fairway Station near Fairview Park mall at 10:30 a.m.

One person thrilled to see the ION finally get going after many delays is regional Coun. Tom Galloway. He's even been tweeting a countdown each day.

"I'm just terribly excited," he said Thursday in a phone interview from the Fairway Station.

"It's been a long journey. Not easy at times," he acknowledged. "And there's been at least three municipal elections that we've fought with this issue being the main issue and the community has consistently supported it."

This conceptual drawing from 2013 compares how King Street at the Grand River Hospital would look before and after light rail. How close were they? (Region of Waterloo)

ION or The Wave

If you go back — way back — to 2004, that's when the project had its first milestone. The region's website notes in May of that year, the federal and provincial government, along with the region, announced $2.5 million for the Region of Waterloo Growth Management Strategy, which would pay for studies and an environmental assessment to move the project forward.

The environmental assessment process began in January 2006.

An LRT train undergoes testing in November 2018. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

It wasn't until June 2011 that the region approved light trail transit as the preferred technology for the transit system.

In April 2013, the brand name ION was chosen for the LRT over The Wave. The region surveyed 305 people in public consultations and a news report says 66 per cent preferred ION because the name reflected "the tech-savvy nature" of Waterloo region.

In that same article, it said: "The region plans to have that line finished and operational by 2017."

That didn't happen.

A handwritten sign instructs students near Kitchener Collegiate Institute how to cross over the LRT tracks during construction and ropes and pylons are often used as barriers. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Delays on delays

Construction started in August 2014 in uptown Waterloo. The long construction window was blamed for decreased holiday shopping and businesses said they were feeling the pinch, including Central Fresh Market and along Charles Street in Kitchener.

In March 2016, another delay, this time after corduroy road logs were discovered under King Street in uptown Waterloo. This discovery may have helped some businesses, though, as people flocked to see the unearthed logs.

Then came the delays from Bombardier, the company manufacturing the LRT trains. All trains were originally supposed to arrive by December 2016 with the final cars arriving in October 2017. 

In May 2016, it was learned the ION service couldn't start until early 2018 due to delays. In April 2018, the start of service was pushed to December. Then, in November, the region pushed the launch date to spring 2019.

A photo tweeted by the @rideIONrt account showed the first ION car as it was being prepared for its trip to Waterloo region from Bombardier's Thunder Bay plant in December 2017. (@rideIONrt/Twitter)

'A more sustainable future'

As people hop on the ION, Galloway says he hopes they see it as a great alternative to their vehicle.

He also wants them to see just how the transit system has already started to reshape the community.

"They're going to see the construction cranes," he said.

"They're going to see the new development and they're going to realize that our community is building a more sustainable future, trying to reduce the consumption of farmland, and through intensification with rapid transit as the main catalyst, we're accomplishing that."

Tracks are laid on Benton Street in Kitchener as construction for the ION light rail continued in January 2016. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

As for Cambridge, that city's next for getting the LRT although the system is still years away from its first start date. Galloway says they've focused on increasing bus ridership in the city, which they've accomplished, and they now have a route for the ION in Cambridge.

"We're moving forward," he said. "I think where there were a lot of naysayers in Cambridge at the early stages, and even more recently, they now have seen the great benefits of the LRT in Waterloo and Kitchener and they are really looking forward to those benefits."

The ION will be free for people to ride until Canada Day.

A car collided with an light rail transit vehicle earlier in June just outside Kitchener Collegiate Institute. Police say the driver of the car was attempting to make a u-turn at the time of the collision. Four collisions with LRT trains in the span of a month prompted a conversation in the community about driving habits. (Submitted by Jamie Good/@thejamiegood/Twitter)

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