The Innovation Express

Much of the country’s most important innovation, transportation, education, research, and culture occurs down a single train corridor.

When you think of the connection between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, two of the world’s best innovation ecosystems, the 401 often comes to mind. The traffic filled commuter nightmare that connects the two has been dubbed the “Innovation Highway” due to it’s proximity to so much emerging technology.

But what if I told you there is something far better that connects the two and intersects so much more. Well there is, and it is a train. The Kitchener GO train to be exact.

At each end is one of the world’s great innovations clusters, and connections to a staggering list of nodes innovating in technology, education, art, culture, entertainment, life sciences, manufacturing, logistics, aerospace, agricultural, fashion, and finance. As well as connectivity with the most important transit lines and highways in the province, and many of the best educational and research institutions in the world.

A graphic I put together. Please excuse my colour blindness.

Here is a direct link to a large version of the above graphic.

Within kilometres, and even hundreds of metres in many cases, of the Kitchener GO line is the following:

  • Multiple start-up clusters: Waterloo, Guelph, Bloor/Dundas, Liberty Village, King/Spadina, Downtown
  • Six universities: University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Guelph, University of Toronto, Ryerson University, OCAD University
  • Four colleges: Conestoga College, Sheridan College, Humber College, George Brown College
  • Accelerators, incubators, and VC firms
  • Fortune 500 companies including Intel, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Facebook, Motorola, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Boston Scientific, First Data International
  • A large manufacturing and logistics capacity
  • Three of the country’s largest conventions centres: International Centre, Direct Energy Centre, Metro Toronto Convention Centre
  • A diverse variety of industries from aerospace to fashion, agriculture to finance, technology to entertainment
  • The financial centre of a G7 economy

From a transportation standpoint there is the following:

  • Three planned and under construction LRTs with direct connections: KWC’s Ion LRT, Brampton-Mississauga LRT, Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Additionally, had transit city worked out the Jane LRT would also have connected
  • Three subway lines with direct connections: Bloor-Danforth line, University-Spadina line, Yonge line
  • The rail corridor and stations are shared with two major transit initiatives: Smart Track Regional Express Rail, Union-Airport Express
  • Intersection with six street car lines: St. Claire(512), Dundas(505), Queen(501), King(504, 508), Bathurst(511), Spadina(510). Electrification or future Smart Track improvements could make these stops feasible
  • Three international airports: Toronto Pearson Internation Airport(YYZ), Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport(YTZ), Region of Waterloo International Airport(YKF)
  • Four 400 series highways: 401 the Innovation Highway, 427, 407 ETR, 410

No other rail line in the region even comes close.

You could use one train to visit a start-up and hang out at an accelerator in Waterloo, tour agriculture and life science research in Guelph, go antiquing in Acton and fly-fishing in Georgetown, see where the Canadarm 2 used on the ISS is built in Brampton, fly out to San Fransisco from Pearson, visit fashion week and see great bands on Queen West, take night school classes at U of T, get funding for your company and see cancer research in action downtown, and eat at some of the best restaurants in the world on King Street.

Fantastic, right? Let’s go for a train ride and build the economy of tomorrow. Except for one thing. The current service is infrequent and slow. Rush-hour service only into Toronto with no returning trains until rush-hour out, and that is only for cities closer to Toronto. GO trains reaching all the way to Kitchener-Waterloo are two trains in the morning and two trains returning at night, taking two hours to complete the journey each way. Then again, what would expect with the current state affairs of public transit in Ontario.

But there is hope. Metrolinx has two major projects on the Kitchener line to improve service. The on-going Georgetown South Project to provide infrastructure improvements and account for future growth, and the nearly complete West Toronto Diamond Grade Separation project to provide separation of the GO commuter lines and freight lines. As well, the Kitchener line has been marked as a priority for electrification, which would greatly increase speed. Assessment projects are already underway. Finally, the Union Station Revitalization will have a big affect. The GO concourse will be tripled in size and major train shed, track, and signal upgrades will allow fastering shuttling of trains. Most importantly a dedicated track through the fly-under tunnel has been completed for the Kitchener line.

Additionally, the recent elections also brought in more transit positive politicians such as Toronto Mayor John Tory, and Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey who is making the urgent case for all-day two-way service on the Kitchener line. Recently I had a conversation with the MPP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton Jagmeet Singh who himself was working diligently to increase service on the line.

It also makes very big economic sense. According to a report prepared for the City of Kitchener, all-day two-way train service would unite a technology ecosystem of 12,800 technology companies, 2800 start-ups, and 205,000 technology employees. This ecosystem is second only in size to the Silicon Valley and San Fransisco area. An area of similar shape and size as the Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto corridor and with a regional rail line as its backbone. A strong precedent.

Same scale, same shape, same potential

That same report estimated that net employment growth from two-way all-day train service would be 37,600 technology jobs in just the Kitchener, Waterloo, and Guelph area. And as many as five more jobs could be created for each one of those due the high multiplier effect of tech employment. Now imagine similar growth at other hubs in the ecosystem. Wow.

The capital costs to establish two-way all-day service with track upgrades using existing diesel trains is estimated at $600 million. However, the income tax revenue from the technology job growth in the Kitchener, Waterloo, and Guelph area is estimated to yield $541 million per year. One year’s income tax revenue from job growth in one end of the system would cover the cost of the train service. And that excludes HST and corporate tax revenue, and does not include the tax revenue from the multiplier jobs and job creation elsewhere on the line. Incredible.

Looking beyond the direct economic impact you can expect reduced traffic and less parking lots, denser and more vibrant urban communities, and a lot of happy commuters in need of relief. As well, it is estimated there will be eight million metric tonnes of emission reductions per year.

What a big win this would be.

Let’s hope the powers that be recognize the importance of this train as the backbone of the most important innovation ecosystem in the country and push harder for sweeping improvements.

“I think I can, I think I can.” — The Little Engine That Could