A little more than a decade after its birth, Canada set out to build a railway that would bind the new nation from coast to coast.
Its builders blasted through the granite of the Canadian Shield north of Lake Superior. They spanned rushing rivers and train-swallowing muskeg. They raced across the Prairies, laying up to five miles of track a day. They dug tunnels in the Rockies. They built towering wooden trestles over mountain valleys.
Workers – among them thousands of cruelly exploited Chinese labourers – battled clouds of mosquitoes in the summer and frostbite in the winter. Many died in blasting mistakes and other accidents.
On Nov. 7, 1885, the eastern and western sketches of the Canadian Pacific Railway met at Craigellachie, B.C. White-bearded Donald A. Smith drove the “last spike.” The whole enterprise took around five years.
A century and a quarter later, Toronto set out to build a transit line across the city. There were no mountains to cross or roaming bears to fear, only the mild urban landscape of midtown Toronto. Instead of sweated labour, the builders employed massive modern boring machines to dig a tunnel for the central part of the line. Total distance to be covered: 19 kilometres, a half day’s walk.
Construction began in the summer of 2011. Officials said the job would be done by 2020, but later pushed that back to 2021, then 2022. Now the government can’t say when the line might open.
Ontario’s Transportation Minister, Caroline Mulroney, told reporters this week that she would love to give the public a date but the contractor that is building the Crosstown has failed to supply a credible timetable for the final work. Phil Verster, the chief executive of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, also blamed the contractor, saying that the project faced 260 quality problems, including track that had been laid incorrectly, a flaw that could cause derailments unless corrected. “I don’t control the schedule,” he said.
So, to sum up, no one in charge seems to have the foggiest clue when commuters can expect to start riding the Crosstown. Or if they do know, they aren’t telling. Documents unearthed by the Toronto Star suggest the government told Metrolinx to be stingy with the information it releases about the light-rail project. Either way, more than half a year has gone by since Metrolinx said the Crosstown would miss its latest goal for completion and the public is still in the dark.
This is no way to run a railroad. At a cost of an estimated $12.8-billion, up from $8.4-billion when builders broke ground a dozen years ago, this project is drawing heavily both on the government’s resources and the public’s patience. Torontonians have a right to know when they get the transit service that their taxes are helping to provide. Those who live or run business along the line have a right to know when the mess they have endured for so long might finally come to an end. Instead they are getting excuses and blame shifting.
More than just the future of this transit line is at stake. Toronto is in the midst of a huge and long-overdue expansion of its mass transit system. The north-south Yonge line, the city’s original subway, is being pushed north, the east-west Bloor-Danforth farther east and north. Then there is Premier Doug Ford’s signature project, the Ontario Line, a city-spanning new subway.
After endless stops and starts, Toronto at last has a solid transit plan, funded and approved. The question now is whether authorities can get it built. The last big subway project, a northward extension of the Spadina subway, was also way over budget and years behind schedule when it opened in 2017. The Crosstown debacle is surpassing even that saga.
You only need to drive along the Crosstown route to see the evidence. The intersection of Yonge and Eglinton is still covered with heavy planks spanning the construction zone below. Some of the project’s worst complications have been at this hub. One station just east of the Don Valley Parkway is being torn up for repairs. Inspectors found an uneven layer of concrete. Another station, at Bayview, stands finished and ready.
A digital readout on the street says, a bit redundantly, “not in service.” It might just as easily say “don’t hold your breath.”