port lands tracks toronto

Toronto wants to tear up rail tracks abandoned for years but people are fighting back

Aging, rusted rail spurs are a reminder of the heavy industry that once dominated Toronto's Port Lands area. These stretches of track may be in rough shape, many disused for years, but a City plan to tear them up has the remaining industrial tenants in the quickly-changing area fighting back.

Built out in the smoggy days of the early 20th century, the Port Lands was packed with industry and shipping uses until very recently, when Waterfront Toronto began its extensive revitalization plan that includes a new island and a restored, naturalized Don River mouth.

In line with plans to improve the walkability of the area, the City is now planning to tear up the Harbour Lead Line and Keating Rail Yard, two seldom-used relics of rail infrastructure that have been largely mothballed for years.

Their names may not be familiar to most, so here's a quick orientation.

The Keating Rail Yard occupies a stretch running along the north side of Lake Shore Boulevard East between Don Roadway and Booth Avenue. The Harbour Lead Line is a long, U-shaped route extending east from the yard, south, and then back west along Unwin Avenue, with a few rail spurs serving industrial sites along the way.

If you haven't seen many trains using this infrastructure in the last decade or so, you're not alone. The Harbour Lead Line has been almost exclusively used by Toronto Water for deliveries to the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant for over a decade now, just a shadow of the busy train traffic that once roared along this stretch at regular intervals.

Other spurs serving points along the line have been disused for ages, including one serving PortsToronto's 8 Unwin Avenue facility that hasn't seen a train since 2010, and the CanRoof facility at 560 Commissioners Street since 2014.

Traffic declined from a monthly volume of 1,100 train cars per month in the mid-1980s down to just a couple hundred by the late 1990s. By the 2010s, it was only 13 cars per month.

The final death knell came in 2018 when a stretch of the line abutting Leslie Street was torn up as part of the sale of 675 Commissioners Street to Canada Post.

What is left today is a truncated stub of what existed before, but the City's intention to remove what remains is not sitting well with big industry, namely the Toronto Industry Network and some of the remaining industrial tenants in the Port Lands like Lafarge Concrete.

Instead of tearing up the tracks, these industrial interests have pushed back against plans, stating an interest in a re-built rail network serving the business that remains in the area.

The removal of the tracks was on the verge of approval by City Council, but this pushback from industrial interests resulted in the approval being delayed while these requests are explored.

In defence of the plan to remove the tracks, a City report states that the rail yard and line's elimination would "benefit future redevelopment projects in the Port Lands and enable several roadway, public realm, pedestrian and cyclist safety improvement opportunities along Lake Shore Boulevard East, the Don Roadway, and the Broadview Avenue extension."

The report also contends that tearing up the line would result in "significant capital and future operating cost savings" for the city while reinstating the Harbour Lead Line to operational use has been estimated to cost approximately $50 million, which includes a full rebuild to meet modern standards.

The request has been referred to Toronto's Director of the Waterfront Secretariat for consultation, with a follow-up report expected at the upcoming July 19 City Council meeting.

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