Ontario's proposed high speed rail a 'disadvantage' for rural communities, says OFA

The head of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture says Ontario's planned high speed rail line will cause problems for rural residents and farmers.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture president says rail line is 'urban-centric'

Ontario has committed about $11 billion is set to go support construction of a high speed rail network. (The Associated Press)

Not everyone is happy about a provincial commitment to build a high speed rail line from Windsor to Toronto. 

The head of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) said the line will cause problems for rural residents and farmers, saying it's "totally confusing" that the Ontario Liberals are "in a rush" to complete the project without looking at long-term effects. 

OFA president Keith Currie said the line will put rural communities "at a serious disadvantage," and create a boundary across the province. 

"What Ontario agriculture and rural Ontario in these parts are getting is nothing but problems," said Currie.

"When you look at a high speed rail line running from — essentially Kitchener to Windsor in particular — you're looking at a line that cannot be crossed at a level of crossing ... That essentially is going to be dividing the province in half."

The line would be difficult to cross because of a 15-foot high fence along the route, said Currie. That barrier means farmers wouldn't be able to cross the line to access their properties with machinery, and it could create a barrier for first responders in small communities.

"What we're proposing out of this is to take a longer, harder look at the economic impact that it's going to do to rural Ontario and agribusiness," said Currie. "We don't need to remind the government, we are the largest industry in Ontario and the largest employer."

Currie said the province's plan is urban-centric, and is concerned about land expropriation which he said will take 12 acres of prime farmland out of production per kilometre of track.

President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Keith Currie, said the province's proposed high speed rail line will be "at a serious disadvantage" to rural communities across the province. (Ontario Federation of Agriculture)

"That's not a positive and that's not where the government is telling us they want to go with respect to land preservation and more specifically agricultural land preservation," said Currie. "It's totally confusing as to why they're in a rush to do this without really looking at the long term effects of it."

Between London and Kitchener, to an outsider, it may look as though there is nothing there and that is our concern,- Nicole Langlois,  InterCityRail citizens' group

Instead of a high speed rail, the OFA is proposing the province look at high-performance rail lines as an alternative option to fast, energy-efficient travel, said Currie. 

They're also calling on the province to complete an economic analysis of the high speed rail plan — looking at costs to residents, landowners, farmers and businesses that will need to relocate or adjust due to "land expropriation." 

Rural municipalities concerned

Last week, a group called InterCityRail held public meetings in Tavistock, New Hamburg and Thorndale to discuss the rail line. 

The grassroots organization consists of residents from Kitchener to London, who are concerned about the pathway the new line would carve out in their community. They are requesting an environmental assessment — already underway in the province — include alternatives to the high-speed rail and look at alternative routes. 

"Between London and Kitchener, to an outsider, it may look as though there is nothing there and that is our concern," said Nicole Langlois, a member of the group.

It's ironic [the OFA] come out and say something before the study is even done, and some of the issues they talk about can be mitigated in the design stage.- Paul Langan, president, High Speed Rail Canada

"We want to show the government there is very much is something here. It's farmland, it's people's homes, it's small communities, it's a whole world and way of life that's going to be affected by high speed rail."

Langlois said her group would like the province to consult the municipalities.

Liberals lay the track

In its last budget, the Liberal government committed $182 billion to infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, including the major pledge towards the construction of Canada's first high speed rail line.

The 2018 pre-election budget promised an $11 billion investment for "Phase One" of the long-discussed project, to support construction between Toronto and London. Stops are planned for London, Kitchener, Guelph and Toronto Union Station, with a connection to Pearson International Airport. The second phase of the project would add stops in Windsor and Chatham.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Transportation said "no planning and design decisions have been made" about the rail line, including the final route location. 

"We will be engaging with local communities, the agricultural sector, municipalities and Indigenous communities in order to ensure that potential impacts are properly identified and evaluated within the decision-making process," wrote Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer for the ministry.

A company was hired this month to begin the environmental assessment of the Kitchener to London portion of the line, said Nichols. 

The electric rail line is being touted as an environmentally-friendly way to travel while reducing travel times by as much as 60 per cent.​

Too early to be concerned 

Advocates for the rail line said it's too early to be concerned about a project Ontarians, so far, know little about. 

"It's ironic [the OFA] come out and say something before the study is even done, and some of the issues they talk about can be mitigated in the design stage," said Paul Langan, president of High Speed Rail Canada.

President of High Speed Rail Canada, Paul Langan, said many of the concerns expressed by the OFA can be mitigated in the design of the rail line. (CBC)

Langan admits that if the rail lines run where existing tracks are, there could be issues for people trying to cross but it's a non-issue for "true" high speed rail.

"High speed rail is grade-separated — that is what's safe about true high speed rail,meaning autos — freight trains, trucks are not on the same level. So whether it's bridges or underpass they're on their own separate corridor," he said. 

"It's too bad they come out with criticism before the study is even done."