LRT – An Idea Already Tried and Abandoned in Peel


[It is Far from a New Idea]

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Winston Churchill said in the British Parliament in 1948 that, ““Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.  There is some controversy as to who came up with the thought first as some attribute it to Spanish philosopher, George Santayana in 1905.

None the less, some people are stubborn to kid themselves into believing historic events were simply bad luck or a fluke.  Las Vegas has thrived on that idea.

History seems to be a subject that is not well taught or well learned by alumni of the Peel school system who have entered adult world as the  millennium kids.  There is a dangerous naivety that travels with those that believe that history began on the day they arrived.

There is a small but quite vocal group of such people here in Peel who have made it their personal raison d’être attempt to exert pressure towards the development of an “allegedly” new concept known as “light rail transit” (LRT).  A careful look at history informs us that the idea is far from new fresh or novel.

The Era of Suburban Railways

I am sorry to rain on the parade, but the notion of urban mass transit is nothing new.  It appeared, briefly in the 1890’s and abandoned by the 1940’s for a number of reasons that seem to have escaped the limited imaginations of those attempting to repeat an epic historical failure.

I know that it is not popular to spend time at a real library and undertake real research into much. After all, it is much simpler to thumb type a Google search and assume the results to be accurate and thorough.  Unfortunately, many of the results arrived at via the “thumb search” are from folks just as disinterested in learning as those who rely on the thumb-typing research that has become too common recently.  That suggested visit to a library and the commitment of a bit of time opens doorways into knowledge.

An array of urban (or radial) rail lines spread out from Toronto during the period of about fifty years from 1890 until the early 1940’s.  It may come as a gigantic disappointment to our noisy and youthful rail proponents, but this rail network, operated by Suburban Electric Railway Company has already been tried and cast aside in Peel.

In fact, part of that rail line is still visible today.  El Dorado Park, which was located on the Credit River near Churchville, a 100 acre recreation area was created by the Suburban Electric Railway Company in hopes adding an “attraction” that might boost a constantly failing ridership.  The electric railway is now long gone and Eldorado Park remains.

The Pathway to Failure

In its hey-day, the western portion of the Suburban Electric Railway Company’s route had stops in places like; Churchville;  Streetsville;  Meadowville;  Huttonville;  Norval;  Geoergetown; Acton and Guelph and (oh yes!) Brampton.

As is the case with the proposed present day LRT concept, the Suburban Electric Railway relied on two things; electricity as its energy source and a perceived ridership that was grossly overestimated.

The growth spurt brought on by post-depression industrialization by the mid 1930’s was driven by the need to manufacture materials and equipment in support of the war effort.  In many ways, war production woke an economy that had been stunned by the Great Depression (1929-1939).  Most economists recognize that the manufacturing frenzy brought on by war time production created an upwards trend in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that has continued trending upwards since the war.

Where the Suburban Electric Railway’s (SER) failure was lack of riders, it was spiraling electricity cost in Ontario that was the death nail that finally finished SER.  In any free market economy, supply and demand will always dictate price. Spiraling electricity usage demands in manufacturing brought about price increases for electricity that could not be managed from the fare boxes of the SER fleet.

Moreover, as noted the SER concept never did achieve the lofty ridership targets that were used to justify the investment.  Even adding gimmicks such as an amusement park (El Dorado) failed to produce the cars-full  of riders needed to keep the venture’s head above water.

It is eerily ironic that here we are in 2015 attempting to introduce a mass transit system that relies on electricity.  Not that electricity is not a cleaner fuel source than alternatives.  But, gosh (!) we have manufacturing jobs leaving Ontario because of spiraling electricity costs.

Valid surveys tell us that Ontario has the highest electricity cost of any/all Canada’s provinces and territories.  It’s most ironic that we have a government at Queen’s Park that is hell-bent on adding a high demand component (LRT) to the demand side of the supply/demand puzzle while selling the province’s publicly owned electric supply system.

Mass public transit is not a bad thing.  There are alternatives to any problem.  High investment transit (such as LRT) is the most radical solution.  For high investment mass transit to function efficiently, it MUST rely on high number of riders.  That failure was a large part of the demise of SER.  High investment transit (such as Toronto’s subway network) works well in communities where high density populations exist in a predominantly high-rise community.  Toronto’s TTC is the primary mode of local transportation for countless hundreds of thousands on individuals residing in a high –rise city.  Low investment bus-rapid transit (BRT) with an ample sprinkling of common sense may be the right solution for suburban communities. Even that solution should not attempt to make a “one size fits all” bus choice work. Less busy routes and off hours routes can never justify the massive buses that ply the city streets (half empty) during business hours.

The demographics of suburban communities such as Brampton and Mississauga are comprised of folks that seek a different life style than their urban neighbors in Toronto.  Suburbia evolved as a result of folks seeking the lush green lawn, two cars in the driveway and a barbeque in the back yard.  Those things are not possible in urban Toronto.

There is a near maniacal mantra promoted by a loud and rough group intent on denying the validity of the suburban dream.  That same group would ignore that automotive manufacture is a key and vital source of jobs.  They would similarly pass through the massive parking lots of suburban shopping centers to make their purchases.

Brampton Ontario is NOT Bogotá Columbia.  Folks here derive a world class life style that is dissimilar to a third world city such as Bogotá.  One size does not fit all. Where the LRT scheme may work well in places where individualism and individual transportation fails to provide the flexibility enjoyed by Brampton’s suburban population.  It is highly doubtful that those enjoying the great flexibility afforded by private transportation are likely to ( en masse) cast aside the suburban dream that led them to home ownership in suburban communities such as Brampton and Mississauga and willingly submit to the exact thing that many escaped by moving from Toronto into the suburbs.

Incidentally, our rabid LRT enthusiasts may do well to hop on their bicycles and take a trip to nearby Radial Railway Museum (in Guelph Line in Milton) where the last remnants of this already failed electric public transit system are preserved.

I suspect that emotional rhetoric may force a massive investment in an LRT system that is likely to become a white elephant much like the system that was tried and failed almost 100 years ago.  It is troubling that Ontario with its massive debt load would sell off its electricity network on one hand and then insist on this LRT fiasco (with its $1.6 Billion cost) and have the audacity to use funds from the sale of  Hydro One to create an LRT system.  Even more perplexing is the fact that Ontario’s “alleged” transit experts (MetroLinx) is stating that likely ridership along the Hurontario route would come nowhere near the required bums in the seats numbers as would justify the investment.

Brace yourselves folks. You can count on (expect) more than a little bit of additional theatrics from those in favor of HMLRT.

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 Copyright  Thunderbird Rising 2015

 The above article is copyrighted.  You may use, copy or distribute this article conditional on attributing your source (Thunderbird Rising) and the author (Lloyd Fournier)

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