Should Peel Region’s old railway become green space, or transit? | So Good News

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On an overcast late summer day, the only users of a railroad track in the downtown core of Brampton, Ont., are a few squirrels and the occasional pedestrian taking the road untrodden.

The 51 kilometer track of dark steel appears to be permanently stuck in the uncreated wilderness. They cut through one road after another, past a handful of high-rises, past city halls, schools, churches and a juvenile correctional facility, then into overgrown forests that wind through the city. The bells crossing the railway no longer ring, the red and white X’s now serving only as signs for people traveling by other means, usually cars.

It’s hard to imagine that these overgrown tracks once carried busy passenger cars, taking people through the three communities now known as Peel Region: from the historic town of Streetsville, now part of Mississauga, through the industrial outskirts of Brampton and then downtown, then northwest past the lush farmlands of the town of Caledon. The last stop was the picturesque town of Orangeville.

Map of Orangeville Brampton Mississauga railway
The Orangeville Brampton Railway used to carry passengers and freight between four major centers in southern Ontario. Now the region must decide what to do with the unused corridor. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

In the last 21 years, the tracks have been little used and only for freight. Orangeville owned the rail bed and, according to Mayor Sandy Brown, the city “bleeded” $450,000 a year in property taxes to the three Peel Region governments to preserve rail service. The Orangeville City Council estimates it has lost close to $10 million over the 20-plus years it ran the rail line.

But that deficit is now less of a concern: In July, the Region of Peel bought the rail lands for $5.8 million, officially ending 140 years of rail in Orangeville. The City of Brampton also purchased the rail yard where the trains were parked for $24.25 million.

The plan for the land, at least for now, is to turn the corridor into a recreational trail connecting all four communities. It would be a first for Ontario: a significant nature trail cutting right through the center of a busy city, planting a permanent green space in some of southern Ontario’s most populated suburbs.

“Land that intersects cities like this doesn’t often become available,” Jake Mete, senior manager of Brampton’s parks planning department. “And a path that goes through an urban area? There is none in Ontario.”

If built, the trail could offer Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) residents a car-free way to explore a long route through the region.

An overview of the old railway line in the Peel Region.
The 51 kilometer long railway line stretches through city centres, residential areas, agricultural land and industrial areas. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Railroad trails are exactly what they sound like: former railroad beds that have been converted into trails for active recreation such as biking, hiking, and more. There is a decade-long movement in the US that seeks to create “a nation connected by trails”, and in Vancouver the city council bought 42 acres from the Canadian Pacific Railway to turn into a “greenway”. There are already close to 100 rail trails in Ontario, but most are either in protected areas, like the Niagara Escarpment, or in rural locations like the Bruce Peninsula, where land is much less developed than in the south.

Peel Region needs green space, but as southern Ontario grows rapidly and Doug Ford’s provincial government pushes for freeways to connect the suburbs, some residents worry about ignoring a simple public transit solution. While the route curves through farmland, industrial land and some hilly landscape, a large portion in northern Brampton is straight and, some say, could be used to create a light rail transit line that connects to Ford’s planned Highway 413 or proposed new GO Transit hubs.

“The Peel region not thinking about turning parts of this rail into transit corridors is concerning,” said Moaz Ahmad, a longtime transportation consultant and Mississauga resident. “The infrastructure is there and it won’t cost a lot of money and will encourage the climate-friendly movement in these cities.”

A GO Transit train passes near the old railroad tracks in Peel Region.
Transit advocates argue the rail line could be used to provide commuter connections to GO Transit hubs, or to the Doug Ford administration’s planned Highway 413. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Advocacy organization Transport Action Ontario agrees – in November 2020 the group wrote a letter to Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney arguing that the rail route “will be critical to congestion and reducing vehicle emissions.”

“The Orangeville, Caledon and Brampton areas northwest of the GTHA are experiencing relentless population growth,” the letter said. “Even in a post-pandemic environment, this will put additional strain on area roads including the 10 and 410 freeways used for commuters to GTHA and the growing commercial center around Pearson Airport. The Orangeville-Brampton rail route will be critical to road congestion and reducing vehicle emissions. It is potentially an existing low-cost solution to an otherwise costly future mobility problem…”

Orangeville Mayor Sandy Brown told The Narwhal that the city spoke with Metrolinx about transit use before approving the trail plan, but the provincial transit agency responded that the region does not have the population to sustain a commuter train. Metrolinx did not confirm this to The Narwhal, but said ridership on Orangeville buses on weekdays is low, at just under 50 percent capacity.

The region hasn’t closed the door on possibly using the site for transit: a May staff report approved the rail track, but also mentioned the land’s potential future use as a “utility corridor to help meet the needs of a growing region.” Without offering specifics, the city’s official plan says it will protect the defunct rail infrastructure and continue to advocate for the line to be incorporated into Metrolinx’s commuter network, but that the city is open to alternative uses for the old railroad in the meantime. Another potential use is as a corridor for broadband internet.

The Canadian Pacific Railway operated the rail line for over a century, making the route a central part of rail travel through southern Ontario. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal)

The first train on the Orangeville Brampton Railway rolled into town in April 1867, eventually becoming part of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s route through the regions northwest of Toronto. As the manufacturing industry declined in the latter half of the 20th century, the number of drivers decreased and the industry switched to using ships and trucks.

Orangeville bought the line, and a conglomerate of local businesses was formed, determined to use the railroad for freight. The group employed 422 people and over the past two decades kept an estimated 1,300 trucks off the city’s roads each year. But by 2021, only five manufacturers between Orangeville and Brampton relied on the line.

“It was not financially viable for a small town in Ontario to keep it operating,” Mayor Brown told The Narwhal. “We struggled to support it and motivate the railway to continue.

And then in March — three months after the last train ran on the line on Dec. 17, 2021 — Orangeville sold the land and began ripping out the tracks.

There are no official timelines or costs yet for the proposed rail trail. The railroad group estimates that the cost of decommissioning the rail line could range between $1 million and $4 million, which accounts for the money the region would receive from the deposited steel.

The estimate does not take into account the costs of turning the railway line into a multi-use trail, and a lot has to happen for that to become a reality. There would be clean-up along the entire route to turn it into a green corridor. All 47 level crossings must also be dismantled and traffic redirected or reorganized. The provincial government will also have to carry out an environmental assessment, which could take months to years. The audience will have an opportunity to comment.

Next comes the planning of connecting all the lots as seamlessly as possible. Right now, major arteries in Peel Region, from Highway 401 to Hurontario Street, are heavily congested due to rapid population growth. This will only get worse as cities start building new housing, campuses and hospitals.

An overview of the old railroad tracks through Brampton's core, where the Peel Region Rail Trail would be created.
The proposed rail trail would run through Brampton’s downtown core, just steps from City Hall — a rare urban location for a green corridor in Ontario. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

For Brampton, one of Canada’s fastest-growing urban centers, creating a green corridor that cuts through downtown — literally steps from City Hall — will be “a unique challenge,” Mete said. “It’s going to take a few years. But the beauty is that when it’s done, this will expand the network across Greater Toronto and the Hamilton area.”

After the autumn’s municipal elections, Brown wants to see the creation of a “trail summit” that brings together employees and politicians from all four municipalities along the top of the trail. Also involved will be the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, which already has plans to build a 100-kilometre trail through the Credit River Valley – from the headwater hills of Orangeville to Lake Ontario in Port Credit. Parts of the rail trail overlap with this trail, and the conservancy told The Narwhal that they “look forward to working with the municipalities to discuss how the Credit Valley Trail route can be achieved through this acquisition.”

“I think we need to have a collaborative effort to make sure we provide a good customer experience for those using the trial,” Brown said.

A woman walks along abandoned train tracks in Brampton, Peel Region.
The proposed rail trail would see these abandoned train tracks in Brampton, Ont., cleaned up for use by pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Mete added that integrating a rail trail into both Mississauga and Brampton’s long-term planning goals is an opportunity the cities have never had before, to increase access to much-needed green space for suburban residents. Along with the Hurontario Light Rapid Transit (LRT) line under construction, he believes the trail could change the way residents get around in cities that have long been slated to prioritize cars.

“We envision a future where a Mississauga resident can take their scooter or bike and hop on the LRT, go to Brampton, hop on the trail and go wherever they want,” Mete said. “Having a safe green space for big suburbs, well the sky’s the limit.”

A man travels over the Peel Region railway line in Brampton, Ont.  on a scooter.
The proposed rail trail could enable more active recreation and movement in largely suburban and driver-heavy cities. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

But Ahmad is still on guard. “I think it’s a great corridor to connect people,” he said. “There are many opportunities to make it useful for commuting and regular cycling, and I hope whoever ends up on the city council in the autumn takes a closer look at it.”

“Just having a path is not enough,” he added. “You need to provide the equipment and support to encourage better behavior by everyone, not just recreational cyclists on a Saturday morning.”

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