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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's surprise pledge to run train service from Toronto to Peterborough, Ont. - on a route through his riding - may have been included in the federal budget, but his department still could not say yesterday how much it will cost, how many passengers it might carry, or who will operate it.

"The final cost of the specific project ... has not yet been defined," spokeswoman Nathalie Gauthier said in an e-mail. "Details regarding this project, including the service provider, will be decided in the future."

But critics say the idea will be very costly, requiring large subsidies to carry a comparatively small number of passengers. And they point out it does not appear on Ontario's multibillion-dollar list of priority public-transit projects across the Toronto region that are already awaiting funding.

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The plan to revive passenger rail service along tracks owned by Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. from Toronto's central Union Station to Peterborough - closed by Via Rail in 1990 - has been championed by Peterborough's Conservative MP, Dean Del Mastro, and was welcomed by local leaders.

A document he compiled himself last summer estimated the needed track upgrades at $150-million and predicted slightly more than 900 passengers a day. But now it appears Ottawa has a rosier view of things. A federal official speaking yesterday on condition of anonymity said the total cost of the project may be $105-million, and Mr. Del Mastro said the 900 passenger forecast was only a "preliminary" figure that may be low.

"There has always been a business case for it. There continues to be a business case for it," he said. "It will be of enormous benefit to Toronto, to the GTA, to Durham region, to Peterborough and the Kawarthas."

Mr. Del Mastro said the revival of the railway is the result of a continuing lobby since 1999 when his Liberal predecessor advocated the service, and the Liberal government of the day promised it. He said yesterday he pitched the current government on the idea. "I actually put a proposal together. I put a package together."

Mr. Del Mastro would not say whether Via Rail would operate the service, but said more details would be announced soon. The federal budget says that any project must have a "public beneficiary" come forward by March 31 in order to qualify for money from a $500-million transit trust fund.

Despite Mr. Del Mastro's enthusiasm, some appear to have doubts about the wisdom of the project and expressed surprise it would be included in a federal budget. Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley and his officials said they were not consulted and that the project was news to them.

There have been repeated calls for more transit service out of Peterborough. But a 2006 study by GO Transit, the provincial Crown agency that serves Toronto-area regional commuters, concluded that even a much less expensive proposal to expand bus service between Toronto and Peterborough wasn't worth the trouble, would attract few riders and would only cover 30 per cent of its costs. (Normal GO service recovers 86 per cent of its costs from riders.) Estimating 125 to 275 riders a day, the GO report concludes the number of commuters coming from Peterborough to Toronto is "relatively small" and "future growth is anticipated to be low."

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Serving commuters to the eastern fringes of Toronto proper, such as Whitby or Oshawa, would be impractical because "these trips are dispersed and more difficult to serve with transit."

GO Transit chairman Peter Smith said he knew nothing other than what he had read in the media about the attempt to revive the rail service and that GO Transit has not been approached to run it. He warned any such train service would be massively expensive, perhaps costing as much as $180-million to upgrade the tracks, and requiring large operating subsidies.

"Who is going to pay the subsidy? Oh, it's huge," Mr. Smith said, though he was unable to provide an estimate.

He said GO and provincial officials hope to meet soon with their federal counterparts to get more details about the proposal.

He added that GO actually does plan to look again at whether Peterborough could be served by buses, perhaps running to a GO train station at Bowmanville after expansion on the busy Lakeshore East rail line takes place.

Mr. Del Mastro rejected the idea that the line will require subsidies to operate: "Not according to my report, no."

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Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Flaherty laughed off the cost and ridership projections from his own backbencher's report.

"I don't know where you get your numbers from, 900 and $140-million. I don't know where you get those from," he said.

The Finance Minister also denied that politics played any role in the project, which not only benefits Mr. Del Mastro, who narrowly defeated a Liberal candidate in 2006, but also goes through the riding of Mr. Flaherty's wife, Christine Elliott, who represents Whitby-Ajax for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in the provincial legislature.

"I didn't look at the ridings, to tell you the truth," he said.

Mr. Flaherty said the project will take "hundreds of thousands" of car trips off the region's highways. "The area north and east of the city of Toronto is growing rapidly," he said. "This is one of the most rapidly growing areas not only in Canada but also in North America."

Local politicians along the line welcomed the plan. Oshawa Mayor John Gray said residents in the north end of his city would be the most likely to use the proposed line.

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"It may get people out of their cars but I wouldn't want to put a number to it. It adds to the commuter choice," he said.

Durham regional chairman Roger Anderson said the proposed train line would pick up commuters from his region and from York Region before arriving at Union Station.

"Anything that alleviates congestion in downtown Toronto is a good thing," he said.

1. AJAX-PICKERING

Federal Election Liberal PC NDP Green Other
2006 49% 33% 13% 4% 1%
2007 50% 34% 8% 7% 1%

2. WHITBY-OSHAWA

Federal Election Liberal PC NDP Green Other
2006 39% 44% 13% 4% 1%
2007 36% 44% 11% 7% 2%

3. DURHAM

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Federal Election Liberal PC NDP Green Other
2006 30% 47% 17% 5% 1%
2007 32% 47% 12% 9%

4. HALIBURTON-KAWARTHA LAKES-BROCK

Federal Election Liberal PC NDP Green Other
2006 29% 49% 17% 5%
2007 29% 50% 12% 7% 2%

5. PETERBOROUGH

Federal Election Liberal PC NDP Green Other
2006 32% 36% 26% 5% 1%
2007 26% 48% 17% 9% 1%

SOURCE: ELECTIONS CANADA, ELECTIONS ONTARIO

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