Give Metrolinx this much credit. Twelve senior officials (12!) from the Ontario provincial agency charged with delivering regional transit came to Waterloo Region Monday last – by rail, by bus and by car – braved what the Metrolinx CEO himself said were expected tomatoes from a standing-room-only crowd, and offered something that sounded, kind of, like hope.

It may well have actually been hope. The problem with being from Waterloo Region and hearing anyone talk about rail service to and from Toronto is that it’s triggering. The Pavlovian response is to disbelieve. And foam at the mouth. And reach for a tomato. Even if that someone is bearing good news. Truth is it sounded like there was a bit Monday.

“We’re telling you we’re now increasing services,” Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster told the Tannery crowd, who had come to hear Metrolinx at their first town hall delivered outside Toronto.

After years and years of telling provincial officials that we need more regional rail service, and all of them nodding and promising to rescue us from the daily catastrophe that is the 401, there were signs Monday night that the message has penetrated. Improving service here, both Verster and COO Greg Percy said, is among the three most pressing issues Metrolinx now has on its plate. And there has been what appears to be meaningful recent progress on the file.

A fifth train, both in the morning and evening, was added early this year. The roll-out was rough, with a popular express train cancelled and then replaced – “We learned lessons from that,” Verster said Monday night – but it was an increase, nevertheless.

True, a fifth train is not the the all-day, two-way service we’ve all clamoured for – that the tech community in particular has clamoured for.

But that’s coming, Verster told Communitech News, when asked about that specific issue after the formal portion of the event had concluded.

It’s not coming the way we’d like it to come – which is to say done, and complete, by yesterday – but, he said, it’s coming.

“It’ll ramp up,” Verster said. “Two-way all-day GO will become something that will mature over the next couple of years as we ramp our services up.

“I think the important thing is not to treat two-way all-day GO as a single big event. But it’s an event that must come as we increase services. (Ontario Transportation) Minister (Jeff) Yurek is very excited about continuing to increase services. Over the next couple of years we’ll get to two-way all-day service, long before a (previously announced) 2025 date.

“I don’t want to be specific to trying to pin something down. There is no real single date. It’ll be an increase in services.”

Again, that’s not what we all want to hear – which is that God, or Metrolinx, or someone, will part the seas and just fix our transportation mess and do it now. Still, what made that statement ring somewhat more optimistic than ones that have come in the past is that several relatively recent developments have taken place, Verster said, developments that, all things being equal, should unblock what has long been blocked.

An aside. To understand the maddening beast that improving train service to Waterloo Region is, one must first understand the underlying circumstances.

A portion of the track between here and Toronto, roughly from Georgetown to a point just north of Pearson airport in Bramalea, is not owned by Metrolinx, but rather, by CN. CN uses it to move freight. CN has long balked at giving up the track to passenger service because it interferes with their core business, which is moving stuff, not people.

Room full of people attending the Metrolinx meeting

The standing-room-only scene last Monday at a town-hall-style meeting held at the
by Metrolinx to discuss regional transit. (Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)

The proposed solution of yore was to build a section of track as a bypass. Doing so, however, was a mammoth and expensive job, pegged at as much as $5.5 billion.

When Verster (a South African who has run rail networks in the U.K.) joined Metrolinx 18 months ago, he and/or the province ruled that solution as too expensive and too slow to implement. That news, the cancelling of the twin line, was seen in these parts through the justifiably jaundiced lens that all regional transit news here has been seen – as further proof that the holy grail of all-day two-way will never arrive.

Verster says the opposite is true. That instead of the expensive, slow, twinning of the Georgetown line, Metrolinx and CN came to a deal, one that should speed delivery of service.

“For a large part of last year we negotiated the details of how additional capacity can be added, which means that we don’t have to build the freight bypass to get services to Kitchener. And we can get services to Kitchener sooner than 2025-plus years thereafter.”

There are still sticky points. Upgrades have to happen at Georgetown, which, Verster said, should take roughly 18 months to complete. After those changes are complete, significant improvement should unfold.

And in the short term, until that gets done, more service is coming, it sounded like, in the form of another train.

“We’re telling you we’re now increasing services. We now have five (trains per day each way). We intend to do more.

“I’d prefer to say we’re going to do more somewhere in the next couple of months, or within the next year or so. [But] this is a ministerial announcement and it won’t be wise for me to scoop a minister’s announcement."

In the meantime Metrolinx said it is working to improve existing travel times. Electrification will help in that regard (electric trains can accelerate and stop more quickly, saving minutes). The bigger roadblock to speeding up the trains – the goal is to trim the trip to 90 minutes from the current 125 –  Monday’s audience was told, are the 33 level crossings between here and Toronto. Many need upgrades that will allow faster speeds. Many other level crossings, Metrolinx says, are anachronisms dating back to the formation of the province, and need to be eliminated altogether. That work is under way, they say.

So. Things should get better. Eventually.

The maddening thing, of course, is that it has taken this long to achieve such modest gains to date. It’s particularly maddening in a community where technology and startups are hard-wired with a get-it-done-fast ethos. Travel to any European or Asian country, where train travel is ubiquitous, frequent and fast, and it’s hard to fathom why train service here has to be so … abominable.

The answer has always boiled down to collective will. If we’re going to grow the economy, we have to have better transportation. And so we have Monday’s town hall.

“I’m taking a position of guarded optimism,” said Julie Garner, Principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a member of the Connect the Corridor Coalition. Garner was in attendance Monday night.

“They communicated to the CTC members that they are working on a plan I think they have a plan in place that will start to deliver (a) more service and (b) two-way service from Toronto to Waterloo Region and serving the communities through the corridor.”

But, she said, everyone here has to continue to apply pressure.

“I think it will require effort to inform the business case for the line to get to the speed and frequency we need to unlock the potential of this corridor.”

And the business case is intricately affiliated with the technology renaissance well under way here.

“We believe we have a business case that’s stronger and requires special attention because of the potential to strategically benefit Ontario and Canada’s economy. We’re about more than just moving people. This is about unlocking economic potential, which is something that Metrolinx hasn’t necessarily had as a top priority in its history or mandate previously.

So, yes, transit relief may finally be at hand. Praise the Lord, in other words. The tomatoes may not be needed after all.

View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.