Special Advisor’s Report

MTO consistently says that the final route has not been chosen but it will be defined by the Environmental Assessment. However, the Request for Quote document for bidders for the Environmental Assessment says that the HSR from Kitchener to London will stay within or be adjacent to the existing Hydro One Right of Way from the CN North rail road (from Kitchener to Stratford) to the CN South rail road (London to Dundas). The Hydro One corridor is 50 metres wide, and the new dedicated HSR line is also 50 metres wide, so it is impossible to be within the existing Hydro Line Right of Way (there are Hydro towers in the way!). It is necessary to avoid the Thames River tributary between Embro and Thamesford and this has to be passed on the west side. HSR requires a curve radius of 2.5 km so it doesn’t leave much room to manoeuvre.

The “Proposed Route” on the main menu is our best guess as to where it will go. The map is not exact but we do know if it’s not going through your farm, it is going through your neighbours.

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In the 2014 Provincial election, the Liberal’s promised High Speed Rail. David Collenette was then commissioned to write a report to justify the building of High Speed Rail. Collenette rejected 300 kph HSR as not being economically feasible and recommended that 250 kph HSR be built.

The problem is that HSR requires a straight route as the curve radius for 250 kph trains is 2.5 km and the trains can’t easily go around obstacles. By the way, the curve radius for 300 kph trains is 6 km so marginally higher speeds cause a substantial increase in difficulty. Somebody (MTO?) rejected the 250 kph trains between Kitchener and Toronto and limited the speeds to a maximum of 200 kph for that segment, although the average speed is likely to be 75 kph or less.

David Collenette said in the CBC interview on Feb 13, 2018 (see sidebar), that the only place that HSR could be built is between Kitchener and London. So that is where it is being built.

It appears the Government is trying to fulfil an election promise that they would build HSR and the only place they can build HSR is between Kitchener and London. This makes no sense for the following reasons:

  • Huge disruption to the fertile agricultural community between Kitchener and London.
  • St. Mary’s, Stratford, Ingersoll and Woodstock are bypassed by high speed rail.
  • HSR will not help solve peak congestion problems in the GTA.
  • Unknown ridership numbers between London and Kitchener
  • Ignores potential diversion plans as noted in the Pearson Airport Master Plan. Pearson Master Plan (Draft)
  • Ignores the Ontario Green Belt Plan (2017) which protects agricultural lands. Ontario Green Belt Plan (2017)

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The Special Advisor, David Collenette, estimated that the fares for HSR will be 20% higher than the current VIA Rail service. (see the audio clip in the sidebar).

The cheapest adult round trip fare (Escape – non refundable, 50% change fee) on VIA Rail between London and Toronto is $75.58. The cheapest Business round trip fare is $192.10. With a 20% increase, the equivalent HSR fares will be $90.70 for Escape and $230.52 for Business. (all prices include taxes).

However, Collenette forgot to include the subsidy that VIA Rail receives from the Federal government. The subsidy is from $0.21 to $0.29 per km, depending on the distance from Toronto. If we assume an average VIA Rail subside of $0.25 per km, then the round trio between Toronto and London is about $90. It is very unlikely that the Federal government will subsidize HSR as it will seriously impact the viability of VIA Rail in south-western Ontario. Without the subsidy, the equivalent round trip HSR fare will be $180 for Escape and $320 for business class.

For a family of 4 (2 adults & 2 children at 1/2 price), the HSR round trip fare, including HST will be $310 if the Federal subsidy remains in place. Without the subsidy, the total cost will be $620. This gets the family to Union station, no where near the Ontario Science Centre, the Toronto Zoo, Black Creek Pioneer Village or Canada’s Wonderland so it’s difficult to see a family taking the train until the “last mile” problem is solved.

Anyone commuting from Woodstock, Ingersoll, or Stratford will have to drive to either Kitchener or London to board HSR since it does not serve rural communities. HSR access in London and Kitchener is downtown and to just get to the train station and back will easily add another hour to the commute. The additional cost of parking downtown must be added to the increased in fares.

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High Speed Rail (HSR) is defined as trains running at 250+ kph on dedicated track or 200 kph on existing track. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail). Trains sets (traction units and coaches) are significantly more expensive for trains that can go 250 kph than for trains than only go 200 kph. High Speed Rail is normally used to replace air travel as long stretches of straight track are required to minimize the travel time.

High Performance Rail (HPR) is a mixture of local trains, regional express trains and fast trains. The approach is to fix the bottle necks in the system and provide fast, efficient, reliable and reasonably priced rail services to communities along the route. It in not designed to replace air travel but to replace car travel.

The documents open in a new tab.
Read All Aboard St Mary’s proposal

Read Oxford Counties proposal for Performance Rail

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VIA Rail is a federal crown corporation funded at the discretion of the federal Cabinet of the day. It has no power to borrow private money and is therefore financially and politically emasculated. Since it’s founding in 1976 it has been subject to incumbent government transportation ideology that has been hostile towards Canadian intercity passenger rail. Currently southwestern Ontario has half the number of VIA trains it had in 1982. Canada is the only G7 country to slash intercity passenger rail while all others have invested heavily in route expansion, modern equipment and fare payment options.

VIA Rail has appealed to the federal Transport Minister for funding for new equipment to replace that built in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The response has been to launch a new, federal study on equipment and routes that will further delay new investment. The federal government believes VIA Rail is largely irrelevant to most voters and, consequently, it can safely ignore a growing crisis in Canadian intercity passenger rail.

Without funding for new equipment VIA struggles with ridership growth of around 3% annually. It therefore prioritizes equipment and schedules to meet times and places of greatest demand which is why they use airline-style ticketing. Advance booking can secure an attractive fare but the penalties for changes can be draconian. This discourages “walk up” ridership that could boost passenger numbers significantly.
By international standards both economy and business class cabin services are excellent but they, along with obsolete equipment, drive up VIA’s operating costs which either means more per-passenger subsidy or higher ticket prices.

VIA Rail uses tracks owned by Metrolinx, Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific. Increasing commuter and freight volumes constrict VIA’s ability to add extra trains, even if they had them. A previous federal Transport Minister funded track expansion to improve the speed and timekeeping of VIA’s trains between Toronto and Kingston and similar, carefully managed investments between Toronto and London could prove beneficial to both VIA and CN. However, there is currently no political will to do this. VIA Rail remains frozen in time and more of a hobby for federal Cabinet ministers than an essential public service.

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Many track capacity constraints faced by VIA Rail in southwestern Ontario would also apply to extended GO train services – as would the solutions. GO train services in and around the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) continue to be outstandingly successful because they offer low, “walk up” fares, full accessibility, plenty of seating capacity and growing schedule intensity. The rolling stock is designed for a top speed of approximately 125kph, but it would be feasible to raise this, with equipment design changes and track and signalling improvements, to 175kph.

Those who regularly use GO trains recognise that the hard commuter seating would not be acceptable for intercity use and would need to be changed to improve comfort as would the addition of WiFi.

Extending GO trains to London would meet the rapidly escalating need for a low-cost alternative to the automobile. It follows the expansion of ultra-low-cost airlines that appeal to a growing, budget-conscious passenger market.

Expanding GO’s passenger train fleet of standardised, Canadian-built coaches and extending services deeper into southwestern Ontario has lower risk to taxpayers and could be implemented quickly at modest cost while providing access for more people.

Again, the issue seems to be one of wilful blindness to practicality and a dismissive willingness to put billions of taxpayer dollars at extreme risk for political ends.

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London’s “Shift” plan (www.shiftlondon.ca) started life as a well-conceived and much needed plan to incorporate light rail (trams) with express buses and regular buses into a functional and integrated transportation network for this growing city, considered by some as the commercial hub of southwestern Ontario. It adopted many of the concepts that propelled Kitchener’s ION light rail/GRT bus project into international best-practice.

“Shift” has now been pared back to a bus rapid transit (BRT) only. Globally, other cities of London’s size have adopted light rail because the additional capital cost is quickly offset by its greater ability to get people out of their cars which is what transit systems are all about. Buses are less capable of this especially in communities like London that has an entrenched car culture.

Judging by the “Shift” web-site blog, even the more basic BRT plan may be at risk from individuals and businesses objecting to its disruptive effects during construction and on future traffic flows.

If built, “Shift” buses will not have a direct connection with the VIA Rail station on York St. which is also planned to serve HSR trains. This violates one of the fundamentals of HSR requirements of barrier-free transfer between trains and local transit. Even a one-block walk will materially deter riders. Ideally, the Greyhound bus terminal should be directly accessible to HSR passengers too.

As it is currently planned, “Shift” BRT could not handle the minimum of 6,000 – 8,000 weekday riders needed to make HSR viable to and from London. Without a major rethink, including an LRT service along York St., the consequence of HSR in London would be greater road congestion and a major increase in demand for downtown, off-street parking. Clearly, London and HSR are just not a good match.

And what about St. Thomas, Canada’s Railway Capital? Except it isn’t. An LRT based “Shift” could have used the London and Port Stanley Railway to connect St. Thomas to London and relieved congestion on Wellington Rd. and the Pond Mills area. It could have been a boost to St. Thomas’s post-industrial fortunes. Another missed opportunity for regional, integrated public transportation and another negative for HSR in southwestern Ontario.

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London has an uncomfortable relationship with railways because it is a car-centric community. The CN and CP lines that pass through the City have a combination of grade crossings with barriers and, on heavily used roads, overpasses.

Longer trains, used by both freight railways in pursuit of operating efficiency, result in frequent traffic delays at grade crossings. When stopped they can block several streets and this is both an inconvenience and an impediment to emergency services such as ambulances and fire trucks. Although the problem is acute and chronic there has been no concerted attempt by the City, the freight railways or our two senior levels of government to study and fund a permanent solution.

With up to 30 trains a day a new high-speed line into London could not use one of these existing rail corridors because of increased conflict with vehicle traffic and the fact that the freight railways do not currently permit the use of overhead power supplies for electrically propelled trains. Nor would they relinquish valuable track capacity. They own the tracks, not the taxpayer.

A new, 50metre wide rail corridor through the dense suburbs of east London will be required to get to the VIA Rail station on York St., the planned terminus of the Kitchener to London section of the HSR service. Three possible solutions are available, all of which will require an approximate 4km long ribbon of property expropriation and demolition: trenching, tunneling or an overpass.

The approach to the VIA station must be relatively straight to avoid reducing the average speed of the train and limit noise known as “wheel squeal” that can result from tight track curves. The Special Advisor’s Report on HSR makes no mention of the socially disruptive, technical and financial challenges of the route through suburban London.

Locating the HSR station outside the downtown core will negate most of its claimed economic and social benefits. (See FAQ on London’s “Shift” plan).

This is further justification for the Environmental Assessment to include other passenger rail service delivery options, not just HSR.

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This is the stock-in-trade argument from politicians wishing to burnish their local popularity and taxpayer-value credentials. Such mistaken ideology has dogged intercity passenger rail in Canada for more than half a century.

The truth is that every mode of transportation in Canada receives taxpayer subsidies in one form or another. But it’s very easy to single out passenger railways as it’s common knowledge that they don’t make a profit and, often, incur a substantial financial loss. They exist, in most countries, because they perform a critical public service just like police, education and health care.

In January 2016, C.D. Howe Institute, a centrist Canadian think tank, released an E-Brief on infrastructure investments with a graphic on page 4 showing that in 2013/14 the taxpayer subsidy for Canadian highways was approximately 34%. In other words, licenses, tolls and other costs we pay to use roads only contributed about 66% of the cost of construction and maintenance. See: https://www.cdhowe.org/sites/default/files/attachments/research_papers/mixed/e-brief_225.pdf

In comparison GO Transit recovers about 70% of its operating expenses from the fare box. On a global basis this is considered exceptionally good.

Intercity rail that’s properly planned and run professionally can also achieve very good cost recovery. It is also far more energy and emissions efficient than roads so the environment benefits from substantial reductions in the harmful, social cost of air and water pollution.

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With Ontario’s provincial debt closing on $350 billion, keeping large, expensive projects like HSR off the government’s books is certain to be a serious political objective. Ontario has entered into public-private partnerships (P3s and Alternative Financing Plans (AFPs)) on transit projects where both taxpayers and private industry share the cost and risk. There’s plenty of private capital around to fund transportation projects and some of Canada’s most eminent construction and engineering companies are willing as are pension funds – on certain conditions. So are the Chinese- but that’s another story.

In general, they seek projects that have a reliable and predictable revenue stream that meets their return on capital employed (shareholder) mandate. This means risk minimisation and profit maximisation. The Kitchener to London HSR project would be considered high risk unless the provincial government, i.e. taxpayer, assumes that risk. Politicians anxious to see vote-grabbing projects implemented might be prepared to write a P3 or AFP contract with a private sector partner in a manner that leaves the taxpayer on the hook if construction costs go over budget or operating revenues fall below forecast which is likely given the frailty of the current HSR plan.

Even worse is writing a contract with a financially impaired or a resource-stretched private sector partner as happened with the recent collapse of Carillion PLC in the U.K. and its Canadian subsidiary Carillion Canada. Despite assurances from the U.K. government that taxpayers were not at risk, the collateral cost of providing interim support to clients of Carillion and rewriting contracts (including Britain’s London-Birmingham HS2 high-speed rail project) is reported to be around £400m ($700m) and rising. British taxpayers are writing that cheque and no politician has been fired as a result. Carillion directors also kept their substantial bonuses.

Apart from their risk potential, P3s or AFPs increase the cost of infrastructure projects because the private sector generally pays higher interest rates on borrowed capital than do governments. So, there’s no free money and the cost of keeping infrastructure projects off the public books comes with a substantial premium. But it still does not discourage political meddling and spending money to buy votes rather than investing it in widely-shared, social, economic and environmental progress. After all, it’s what infrastructure is for, isn’t it?

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This is a good question given public angst over future employment prospects including the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and the short term job market with few, if any, employer paid benefits.

With absolute focus on safety and reliability, most jobs in the passenger rail industry require trades and skills that cannot be out-sourced, offshored or performed by artificial intelligence. Track engineering and maintenance, signalling, rolling stock maintenance, customer service, marketing and catering require local, talented people, often with high-tech capability. Depending on the work, can pay six-figure wages and salaries, with benefits. Although building new passenger rolling stock is a critical part of the passenger rail industry it can be cyclical whereas train operations are highly consistent with continued opportunity for growth and skills advancement. In many ways it’s like the airline industry but with better jobs distribution across the province.

Every dollar invested in passenger rail operations results in between $2.2 and $3.6 of annual income depending on how far down the supply-chain one goes. And, remember, these jobs will continue to exist while people continue to travel.

Because successive governments have largely turned their backs on intercity and regional passenger rail, the Ontario talent pool is much diminished. But it has the potential to offer a massive boost to the provincial economy. In the UK over 600,000 people work in the rail industry and the government tax revenue is more than £11 billion (C$20bn).  And the UK industry remains robust with route upgrades, new train building and maintenance facilities being added across the country.

The opportunity for good, high-paying work and the vastly better environmental credentials of passenger rail should put it high on the economic agenda of our federal and provincial governments. The railways built Canada and can help take us into a prosperous, cleaner and secure future.

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VIA Rail has no immediate plans to improve their services in this region. Hollow promises made in 2016 to increase frequencies to Sarnia and through Stratford have not materialised. There is some good news for VIA Rail in the 2018 federal budget but it’s unclear if the planned purchase of new trains will benefit any communities west of Toronto’s Union Station.

Only recently has federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau admitted that passenger rail needs to be an integral part of Canada’s public transportation but there’s no sign of cohesive policy that commits to service expansion, stable funding and constructive dialogue with the provinces. The whim of the federal Cabinet of the day will determine what improvements VIA can achieve even though the stock-in-trade response from Ottawa is that “VIA is an arms-length Crown Corporation that is responsible for its own business”. But it clearly isn’t.

VIA Rail may be holding back on services in southwestern Ontario because they probably know that Ontario’s high-speed rail plan could eventually pillage their customer base and essentially put them out of business. So much for Transport Canada’s hollow budget utterances about the role of passenger rail in Canada’s infrastructure renaissance.

Ontario politicians have trumpeted the completion of the proposed high-speed rail line between Toronto and London by 2025. How can this happen when the Environmental Assessment (EA) process is not due for completion until March 2022? Design and construction cannot commence until the EA is complete and the involved provincial ministries sign-off on the project. Some completed EAs have languished for up to ten years before the political will existed to start building.

So, if VIA maintains their service status-quo, it could be 2030 or long after before we see better train services in this region. What will Highway 401 look like by then? And didn’t we somewhere and sometime sign a climate-change accord?

There could be major service improvements with 5 years with the needed political will and federal/provincial dialogue. But, with stalling and vote-buying taking lead roles in the decision process, let’s not hold our collective breath.

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Niagara Falls lobbied hard for all day GO train service when it became obvious that the QEW highway could not cope with growing traffic resulting from massive residential and tourism growth in the Niagara Peninsular. Federal cabinet cuts to VIA Rail services in 2012 effectively removed all but one train to and from Toronto, ironically Amtrak’s “Maple Leaf” New York City service. And its schedule is of little help to commuters.

Fearing that frequent gridlock and closure of the QEW would damage Niagara’s economic prospects, local business and municipal leaders pressed the Province to improve rail services. It was a long fight with many political obstructions erected by the Province while Ottawa took a hands-off approach. But, with no other viable excuses and an escalating congestion problem, the Province agreed to extend all-day, two-way GO trains to Niagara Falls albeit on a protracted timeline citing “technical issues”.

Ideally, the Toronto-Niagara service would have been a candidate for high-speed rail as Hamilton’s Mount Hope Airport has been identified as a relief airport for Toronto Pearson and would require a fast connection to be viable. But a high-speed route would have been very costly and technically challenging because of the Niagara Escarpment and Hamilton-Wentworth’s almost unchecked urban sprawl.

So, the GO train was the best option for Niagara. But, in 2014, when the Province had announced its interest in high-speed rail, it already knew that a new line to Niagara was too difficult because there was no available corridor that included Mount Hope airport. They looked at other possibilities and Toronto-London was chosen as Ontario’s “me too!” route to join the international high-speed rail club.

“Me too!” is no justification for ignoring the options of enhanced GO train or improved services currently offered by VIA Rail between Toronto and London. Toronto to Niagara Falls and Toronto to London are not dissimilar in distance, so where’s the problem? Perhaps it’s only in the mind of provincial politicians who see advantage in something that’s shiny, new, impractical and unaffordable. But Ontario taxpayers are growing nervous about the provincial debt and the burden it places on future generations. Increasingly, they know that passenger rail solutions other than high-speed rail are the way to go. And they need to be delivered quickly because, like the QEW, Hwy 401 congestion is rapidly worsening.

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It’s true that diesel-powered trains emit a lot more polluting greenhouse gas than electric trains. That’s why most western countries with adequate electrical generation and distribution grid capacity are switching to electric propulsion. Other benefits are lower maintenance costs and faster acceleration. Energy, normally dissipated as heat during braking, can be returned to the grid to reduce overall energy consumption.

Electric propulsion is generally mandatory for passenger trains running more than 200kph as their high energy demands cannot be met with diesel engines and associated on-board fuel tanks. But, below 200kph diesel power remains a viable power option, particularly for operation with high-performance passenger trains with a maximum speed of around 175kph.

Although electricity is considered non-polluting it is only so when generated with emissions-free renewable power such as wind, solar, hydro-electric and nuclear. But the catch is that the manufacture and installation of power distribution infrastructure (transformers, overhead catenary and cables) is fairly emissions intensive. They can also be visually intrusive.

The very latest diesel passenger locomotives meet Environmental Protection Agency Tier 4 emissions (or its European equivalent) whereby exhaust aftertreatment (like your car’s catalytic converter) drastically reduces damaging oxides of nitrogen and carbon particulates. Carbon dioxide remains a problem but, typically, a diesel-powered passenger train emits about half the greenhouse gas per passenger/km than short-haul passenger aircraft on journeys up to about 800km.

Diesel-powered passenger trains can operate on freight lines owned by CN and CP as these freight carriers do not currently permit overhead electrical power equipment.

Ontario must eventually transition to electric trains in areas of high population density and eventually rural areas, where feasible. But High-Performance Rail using modern, low emission diesel engines is an economical and time-efficient interim solution that will make passenger railways appealing to more travelers while minimising taxpayer risk and cost.

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Five years ago, the answer to this question would have been “no”. But the pursuit of low or zero-emissions transportation and recent technological advances have turned this into a strong “maybe”.

Prototype hydrogen-powered trains are now on test in Germany. They are built by Alstom, one of Europe’s largest passenger trainbuilders, using Canadian technology. Click on the Alstom PDF for a complete description. Train maker Siemens has also announced a similar agreement with Burnaby, B.C.’s Ballard Power.

The heart of any hydrogen propulsion system is the fuel cell that takes pure hydrogen as the primary energy source and converts this into electrical power by the addition of atmospheric oxygen. This electrical energy is stored in on-board batteries and then used by the train’s propulsion system. The only emission is water. A further benefit is that a system called regenerative braking, to slow the train, can return normally wasted energy to the batteries to make the overall system more efficient.

For the Alstom passenger train the fuel cells are produced by Hydrogenics based in Mississauga ON. Techies will find the following web sites interesting: http://www.hydrogenics.com/

Since Ontario has the abundant off-peak electrical power necessary to produce hydrogen it could be an inexpensive source of energy. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas (methane) which Canada has in abundance..

Metrolinx is exploring hydrogen to power future GO trains but the challenge will be installing large enough fuel tanks to power their 12-car bi-level trains. If the province is serious about hydrogen as a passenger train fuel, perhaps employing smaller, multiple unit, regional trains, like those built by Alstom or Siemens between Kitchener, London and Sarnia on existing tracks through Stratford might be a low risk trial option.

For more in-depth reading on hydrogen powered trains click on the links below.
Hydrogen powered trains being tested in Ontario
Coradia iLint – Product sheet – English.pdf
RailReview Q3-2017 Power Struggle.pdf   (used with permission of the publisher)
Railway Gazette: Toronto study – using hydro for Regional Express Rail
Railway Gazette: Fuel cell train development funding

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Environmental Impacts

Wildlife is an integral part of the Ontario environment. Nevertheless, development and our increasing population are exerting pressure on natural areas and many species of fauna and flora. The prospect of HSR presents additional threats to our wildlife.

The construction of HSR will cause the complete destruction of all existing vegetation and physical structures along its path. The loss of habitat of native species is inevitable when the rail line intersects with ponds, creeks, woodlots and pasture lands. The impact of the HSR on woodlots will be profound. Changes in the composition of woodland vegetation will cause a loss of biodiversity. There will be ongoing degradation of the landscape as plant communities are disturbed in natural areas and opportunities created for invasive weed species following construction work for the HSR.

Our highways are a significant cause of animal mortality and HSR will contribute to further losses for some species. Many birds have difficulty avoiding vehicles moving at highway speeds. Increased mortality may result along a HSR track when birds perched nearby during the quiet periods between trains are surprised by a high-speed train. Preventing HSR collisions with large mammals will require a high chain link fence barrier. The installation of a fence barrier will also prevent the regular movements of species such as white tailed deer especially during the fall breeding season or in the winter when they are moving between feeding and shelter areas. The HSR and barrier may restrict the movement of other wildlife species such as amphibians that have regular seasonal movements between breeding and overwintering sites. Barriers along the length of the HSR route will cause fragmentation of the habitat of some terrestrial species. Between Kitchener and London, habitats will be dissected into smaller patches north and south of the HSR line. The fragmentation of wildlife populations can restrict normal gene flow. Isolating small populations of an animal may reduce the viability of the species leading to local extinction. In other areas of North America, the migration of wildlife across highways and railways has been accomplished with mixed success using rather expensive underpasses and overpasses.

In meadowlands, HSR will cause loss of habitat and disturbance to species such as the bobolink and eastern meadowlark that are already challenged to find adequate breeding sites. Generally we can expect changes in populations of many species due to a reduction of suitable habitat. Individual wildlife species respond differently to development. Some populations stressed by the disturbance of HSR may become more vulnerable to other pressures in the environment.

Another unfortunate consequence of the HSR will be the barrier it creates to the movement of people and their ability to access the landscape, appreciate natural areas and encounter local wildlife.

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