Soon after Rashid Abu-Ghazalah, a 32-year-old medical biophysicist, began working at a Waterloo tech company, he found himself commuting in one of those snowstorms that rattle the nerves of the most hardened road warrior. With drivers caught unprepared for a November blizzard, he inched past three pile-ups and narrowly missed two others on his way in to the office. The trip took four hours.
The twist to this story is that Dr. Abu-Ghazalah travels to work from a condo at Yonge and Sheppard – a reverse commute in extremis. "All my friends think I'm crazy," he muses. Following that snowy odyssey, he wondered if they might be right.
After all, the 120-kilometre trip means he's driving several hours on the 401 every day and spending up to $600 a month on gas, oil and maintenance for his Honda CR-V. For now, he's enduring the trip because he prefers living in Toronto, although he concedes the situation is unsustainable. "Eventually, I will have to move [to Waterloo]"
Dr. Abu-Ghazalah is not alone. Communitech, a group that represents Waterloo's tech sector, estimates that 12,000 to 15,000 people commute into Waterloo from the Greater Toronto Area every day – double the rate clocked in 2006. "Our best estimate is that there are more people coming in to Waterloo Region from the GTA than the other way around," says chief executive officer Iain Klugman, who notes that there are currently about 1,200 unfilled positions in the region. As Waterloo Region chair Ken Seiling points out, some local firms have taken to running private shuttle buses down to the GTA to collect employees each morning.
That commuting trend runs in precisely the opposite direction to the new GO Transit trains that will begin to operate between Kitchener and Toronto on December 19. Yesterday, local Liberal MPP John Milloy, and another drives from Hamilton. "We're like a family," says Olga Pawluczyk, P&P's CEO. "You worry about these guys getting on the 401."
Since starting P&P four years ago, she's had to go outside Waterloo to recruit scientists with experience in the field of medical instrumentation. "When you're a very specialized high-tech company, you go where the people are who have the necessary skills."
While Mr. Klugman says he's "thrilled" by the new service, his group has nonetheless launched a concerted push to persuade GO Transit to deploy a two-way/all-day train service between the cities. The lobbying push comes on the heels of the region's decision this year to approve funding for a long-awaited LRT/BRT line linking north Waterloo to Cambridge.
With a major intermodal transit hub planned for a designated site in downtown Kitchener, Mr. Klugman says a two-way rail link to the GTA would help Waterloo companies take advantage of the GTA's rich labour market. Mr. Seiling agrees: "Two-way train service will facilitate [the tech sector's]need to bring people in." But, he hastens to add, "I don't see this as raiding Toronto. We're training a lot of people who aren't prepared to live here but want to work here."
Seamless intercity rail is commonplace in Europe, but remains a work-in-progress on this side of the Atlantic. Waterloo, however, isn't the only North American tech hub looking to strengthen transit ties to a neighbouring metropolis. California is planning a similar service between San Francisco and San Jose as part of its massive high-speed-rail project. State officials project that when the service launches, 24,000 people will board in San Francisco every day for the 30-minute trip to the heart of Silicon Valley, compared to just 7,600 travelling in the other direction.
While the new GO service represents a start, it falls short of what Waterloo civic leaders had hoped for. Ms. Pawluczyk, who regularly travels to downtown Toronto for meetings with University Avenue hospitals, was "disappointed" by the schedule. "It would be really nice to see hourly service from early in the morning to quite late at night," she says. "Can that route support hourly service? I have no idea."
From a transportation-planning perspective, it's a classic chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first – the demand or the service?
With commuters now travelling from as far afield as Collingwood and Barrie, GO planners have been cautiously adding rail service. Over 14,000 people a day board at stations along the Barrie GO line, including 1,700 from Barrie and Bradford.
The federal Conservatives have looked at adding another line east, toward Peterborough, but Metrolinx, the GTA's regional transit agency, threw cold water on that plan last year. (GO buses bring just 250 passengers between Toronto and Peterborough each day.)
Among all these destinations, the Waterloo-Toronto connection is unique because of the anticipated employment growth in the region's tech sector, as well as the blurring of urban borders on the western flank of the GTA. A 2008 study done for Metrolinx concluded that job growth and increased enrolment at universities in Guelph and Waterloo will boost traffic in the Waterloo-GTA corridor by 30 per cent over the next two decades. "If people are going to do that," observes University of Waterloo transportation expert Jeff Casello, "we need to think about how to accommodate them."
He points out that if Metrolinx decides to offer regular train service, development is likely to follow, which means that regional and provincial planners need to figure out how much growth the Waterloo-Toronto corridor can sustain.
There are other challenges, as Mr. Seiling concedes: Money, of course, and the technical constraints of adding service along a busy rail corridor built for freight.
But when it comes to demand, Dr. Abu-Ghazalah has no doubt that it's out there, waiting to be freed from the purgatory of the endless mega-commute. "If there were a train, I'd do it in a heartbeat," he says. "Spending three hours in the car [every day]isn't the smartest thing to do."
Special to The Globe and Mail