Greig: Southern Ontario farmers protest high-speed rail impact

A power corridor that runs from London to Kitchener, Ont. has been a silent neighbour for many who farm in that area.

But it’s looking a lot more menacing to them lately, as the likely route for a proposed high-speed rail line from London to Toronto, with stops in Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph.

Farmers in the area between Woodstock and Tavistock recently got together to talk about what the rail line could mean to their farms and communities and they didn’t like what they saw.

The group then quickly organized a meeting which resulted in 180 people standing in the Bickle family farm’s drive shed near Tavistock, Ont. on Friday.

“Although this project has many benefits to citizens of larger centres, what is it doing for our rural communities or small towns of Ontario?” asked Jessica Bickle, questioning why the rail line wouldn’t stop at regional cities such as Stratford or Woodstock.

Bickle and other speakers listed a number of concerns about the potential project, currently pegged at $20 billion:

  • Most rural roads would have to be dead-ended at the rail line for safety reasons, with trains running at 250 km/h. A few overpasses would be built on major roads. That would mean farmers would have to travel a long way out of their way, and on major roads, to reach other farms, or fields now just up the road.
  • There is concern with the impact on rural safety with the ability of emergency response to reach farms when rural roads have been cut off.
  • School travel times would be greatly increased with closed roads.
  • Thousands of acres of prime farmland would have to be taken out of production with the 80-foot rights-of-way needed for a high-speed train.
  • The cost of the project is significantly under-budgeted. Ken Westcar, who was there representing Transport Action Ontario, said a similar distance high-speed rail project in England from London to Birmingham is budgeted at $88 billion and is expected to cost much more than that. Timelines for construction are also excessively optimistic, he said.
  • There would be significant impact on tile and other drainage systems in the area.
  • There are already three rail lines between Toronto and London and more efficient management of those lines could improve current service.
  • There would be significant impact on wildlife and wildlife corridors.

Don McKay, mayor of East Zorra-Tavistock, encouraged strong protest against the high-speed rail project, but also said proposing and supporting alternatives, such as improving current VIA Rail service, is also important.

“Only you people can bring about change,” he said.

The meeting was intended to create discussion, bring the issue to the attention to the media, and start work in protesting the rail line’s impact, but the organizers never expected to get 180 people.

Greg Gormick, also from Transport Action, and considered one of the country’s experts in rail transportation, called the high-speed line “unnecessary and it will create damage clear across the route.”

He told the group that the proposal is political and tied to the coming provincial election.

“This needs to be dealt with at the Legislature. You need to make it a political issue. I don’t think this will get built.”

Gormick proposed what he calls high-performance rail, which includes running the current systems more efficiently.

One of the largest problems with VIA Rail performance is that its trains run in the Windsor-Toronto corridor on tracks owned by Canadian National Railway (CN), so freight gets precedence.

Steve Veldman, a director with the Oxford County Federation of Agriculture, said the Ontario Federation of Agriculture also has some concerns with the proposal and issued a memorandum to leaders in the affected counties.

“This could have a big impact on agriculture’s ability to feed a growing population,” he said.

The high-speed rail issue is another of many that has pitted urban versus rural in Ontario, a point made by several speakers.

“Unfortunately, now more than ever we are seeing a divide in Ontario. You have Toronto, larger centres surround it and small towns surrounding them,” said Bickle.

“Time and time again we are seeing rural community issues being put to the wayside because of the Liberals’ lavish spending that will only benefit their voters.”

— John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia based at Ailsa Craig, Ont. Follow him at @jgreig on Twitter.

(Keith Weller photo courtesy ARS/USDA)
London | Reuters -- Britain will fill a gap of as much as 4.5 billion pounds (C$7.5 billion) in funding for agriculture, universities and its regions that will open up when Britain leaves the European Union, finance minister Philip Hammond said. Scientists, farmers and others who got EU funding were facing uncertainty after Britain voted on June 23 to quit the EU. Hammond reassured them on Saturday that the British government would pick up the tab. The new guarantee over funding comes as Britain faces the looming prospect of a recession following the Brexit vote. Companies are expected to put off investment and consumers to cut their spending as Britain and the EU work out their new relationship. Hammond told reporters that Britain needs about 4.5 billion pounds a year to fill the gap left by the end of EU funding, although Britain's actual exit date may be some way off. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not start the two-year process of leaving this year. "We recognize that many organizations across the U.K. which are in receipt of EU funding, or expect to start receiving funding, want reassurance about the flow of funding they will receive," Hammond said in a statement. According to Full Fact, an independent fact-checking agency, the British government paid about 13 billion pounds to the EU last year, after its automatic rebate, and got back 4.5 billion pounds in funding. "Clearly if we stopped making contributions to the European Union there will be money available to be invested in our own economy," Hammond said when reporters asked about Britain's funding arrangements after Britain's departure from the EU. Britain's opposition Labour Party said Hammond had made the right move in giving the guarantees but added that it was important for the government to also ensure that Britain remained a member of the European Investment Bank. The EIB, a provider of long-term financing on favourable terms to projects that support growth in the bloc, in 2015 invested 7.8 billion euros (C$11.3 billion) in Britain in transport, water and other projects. Hammond's funding guarantee, which covered structural and investment funds and Horizon research funding, was also welcomed by organizations representing recipients of EU funding and by the employer organization, the British Chambers of Commerce. "I hope that this short-term certainty will help to deliver longer-term confidence and this is exactly what farm businesses need now," said Meurig Raymond, the president of the National Farmers' Union. The Royal Society, a London-based group of scientists, said the reassurance on EU grants would help Britain-based research continue to attract the best talent. "Today's announcement sends a strong message that Britain remains open and collaborative," Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan said. Hammond said projects signed before Britain's Autumn Statement financial update will continue to be funded by Britain after it formally leaves the EU and the U.K. would match the current level of agricultural funding until 2020. -- Reporting for Reuters by Sarah Young in London.



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