A History of Electric Transit in Waterloo Region, including the ION LRT

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A route map of the ION LRT and the proposed phase two, courtesy the Region of Waterloo website, March 2017.

Text by James Bow   With additional information by Iain Hendry and Tim Mollison

See Also

The ION is Waterloo Region’s rapid transit network, featuring a 19-kilometre-long light rail transit line, and a 17-kilometre-long bus rapid transit feeder route. When it opens in early 2018, it will be the first rail rapid transit line to operate in Ontario outside the Greater Toronto Area, and the smallest urban centre in Canada to operate such a piece of infrastructure.

From the north end, the LRT starts at a terminal at Conestoga Mall in northern Waterloo, before heading north on King Street and west on Northfield Drive. The line turns south alongside the Waterloo and St. Jacobs Railway tracks (a former CN spur, now owned by the Region of Waterloo) and follows it through the Research and Technology Park, past the University of Waterloo’s campus and through Waterloo Park before reaching Uptown Waterloo.

At Uptown Waterloo, the tracks split, with southbound vehicles operating along Caroline and east on Allen to King, while northbound vehicles operate along King and the railroad right-of-way. The LRT continues along King Street to downtown Kitchener where the tracks split again, with southbound trains heading southwest along Victoria and southeast along Charles to Benton Street, while northbound tracks operate from Charles and Benton via Benton/Frederick, Duke, Francis and King to the King/Victoria Intersection.

After Downtown Kitchener, the LRT continues along Charles Street to Borden, where they split for the last time, with southbound trains operating along Borden and the CN rail spur to the Ottawa/Mill intersection, and northbound trains operating via Ottawa and Charles. The last stretch of the LRT follows the CN rail spur to Hawyard Avenue, parallels Hayward and Courtland Avenue to the Hydro right-of-way north of Fairway Road, and follows the Hydro right-of-way itself to a terminal near Fairview Mall.

At Fairview Mall, passengers will connect to ION buses, which operate express in mixed traffic via Fairway Road, Highway 8, Highway 401 and Hespelar Road to Ainslie Street terminal in Cambridge’s Galt downtown. This service launched with specially-painted buses and enhanced shelters in September 2015.

The LRT operates on exclusive right-of-way throughout, operating primarily along the centre or the side of the street, with stretches of higher speed right-of-way alongside freight railroad tracks and Hydro rights-of-way.

A Brief History of Electric Transit in Waterloo Region

While Waterloo Region’s ION LRT may be an ambitious project, the region has had a long history with electric public transit. Even before Waterloo County was established in 1857, the area was known for its industry. Served by the Grand River and associated tributaries like the Nith and the Conestogo, the county was the site of many mills, and the settlement of a significant community of Mennonites. The Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railways came through the area in the middle of the 19th century, and industries soon set up in the growing towns of Berlin (today’s Kitchener) and Galt (located in today’s southern Cambridge).

Streetcar service in Waterloo County dates to 1886 with the incorporation of the Berlin and Waterloo Street Railway. Horsecar service was operating between the two towns along King Street by 1888 and, by 1889, the line boasted a bustling operation of eight open cars, eight closed cars and three large covered sleighs. The service initially ran from Cedar Street in Waterloo (today known as Bridgeport Road) to Scott Street in Kitchener. A branch line was also built from King Street to the Grand Trunk Railway station (later CN) at the intersection of Victoria and Weber Streets.

Electric streetcar operation arrived in Waterloo County on July 26, 1894 in the form of the Galt and Preston Street Railway, operating along King Street in what is today Cambridge. This was followed by an extension from Preston to Hespeler, and the launch of the Preston and Berlin Railway on October 6, 1904. The latter brought tracks into the City of Berlin (today known as Kitchener). These railways were amalgamated on January 1, 1908 into the Berlin, Waterloo, Wellesley and Lake Huron Railway. In 1914, the company was leased to Canadian Pacific Railway, who changed the name to the Grand River Railway Company.

The Berlin and Waterloo Street Railway, meanwhile, upgraded its tracks and launched electric service on May 18, 1895. It soon laid double tracks on King Street from Water Street to Albert Street. Further streetcar expansion occurred in the form of the Berlin and Bridgeport Electric Street Railway. Incorporated on January 7, 1901, it launched the construction of a five-mile line from downtown Kitchener towards the village of Bridgeport, opening to a sugar beet factory on July 14, 1902, and finally reaching Bridgeport on August 1, the same year. The company had plans to build to Elora and Fergus, and changed its name to the Berlin and Northern Railway in 1912, but the extension never took place. This was the poorest performing street railway in the county and, in 1923, it was taken over by the City of Kitchener and merged with the former Berlin and Waterloo Street Railway (known as the Kitchener and Waterloo Street Railway after Berlin was renamed Kitchener in 1916).

The Kitchener Public Utilities Commission

The local street railway service was eventually handed over to the Kitchener Public Utilities Commission. In 1939, the agency took over a privately-operated bus service from the owners of Sanford Fisher and H. Appell, allowing the PUC to abandon the Bridgeport streetcar line on June 1, 1940. Streetcar service continued to the CN station until 1941. By 1942, the streetcar system had shrunk from 10.35 to 6.82 miles.

The Grand River Railway continued to provide interurban service, linking with the Lake Erie and Northern Railway providing an electric connection all the way south to Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie, but it too was on the wane. Passenger service was being moved off the street trackage between Preston and Galt, and the company augmented service from Kitchener with a bus running in from Galt to connect with Canadian Pacific trains between Toronto and Windsor/Detroit. The automobile was eating into ridership. Electric interurban service ended on April 24, 1955. Canadian Pacific buses continued to operate between Galt and Kitchener until June 19, 1961.

Electric transportation would continue for decades longer in Kitchener and Waterloo, however. Although the street railway emerged from the Second World War in rough shape due to heavy use, material shortages and deferred maintenance, the Public Utilities Commission paid to install an extended trolley bus line from Rockway in Kitchener to near today’s University Avenue in Waterloo. Trolley coaches replaced the streetcars on December 27, 1946. Service was initially provided by ten new Brill T44 coaches, with five more added in 1948, a sixth in 1949, and five used T48A trolley coaches picked up from Ottawa when that city abandoned its system in September 1959.

Kitchener trolley bus service continued until the morning of March 26, 1973, when the trolley buses were retired and diesel buses took over the line. At that time, the Kitchener Public Utilities Commission officially renamed itself Kitchener Transit, serving the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo. In the wake of the Grand River Railway’s departure, the Galt Public Utilities Commission established a separate bus network in 1962, replaced by Cambridge Transit serving Galt, Preston and Hespelar on January 1, 1973.

Post War Sprawl

Following the Second World War, the City of Kitchener, along with the towns of Galt and Preston, experienced significant growth as new immigrants arrived. In 1941, the town of Waterloo had a population of 8,968. It incorporated into a city in 1948 and, by 1951 had a population of 11,991. That population almost doubled by 1961, reaching 21,336. The City of Kitchener’s population was 44,867, but had reached 74,485 by 1961.

Most of the new development, however, was low density urban sprawl that favoured the automobile as the primary means of getting around. As the electric railways faded, new highways were built and suburban subdivisions expanded. By the late 1960s, the City of Kitchener was beginning to experience a hollowing out of its downtown core as aging industries shut down, and new businesses located to industrial parks in the suburbs.

The area’s population was growing, however, along with much of south central Ontario with the development of the Greater Toronto Area. In the early 1970s, the provincial government sought to manage this growth, embarking on a program of consolidating and reorganizing the counties around Toronto into two-tier regional governments that could better handle growth. By provincial act, the Region of Waterloo came into being, replacing Waterloo County and comprising of the townships of North Dumfries, Wilmot, Wellesley and Woolwich, as well as the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. The old towns of Preston, Hespelar and Galt as well as the village of Blair were merged into the City of Cambridge, while Bridgeport was merged into Kitchener.

Early Plans for Rapid Transit

Regional planners by this time were considering a rapid transit line to connect the suburbs with the downtowns of Kitchener and Waterloo (the later named “Uptown Waterloo” in the 1980s). In the late 1960s, an early proposal materialized to connect Kitchener with Preston using an underused railway right-of-way and used PCC streetcars bought from Toronto, but the price the TTC demanded for the PCCs was deemed too costly. In 1976, the newly formed Region of Waterloo released the Regional Official Policies Plan, which envisioned a rapid transit corridor running along King Street between Kitchener and Waterloo, and suggested that denser development be zoned around it.

The cost of such a project, and the availability of inexpensive land for urban sprawl, left any rapid transit proposal in the state of being just a proposal. However, by the 1990s, it was clear that urban sprawl would eventually spill outside the cities designed to contain them, and alter the rural character of the rest of the region. Worse, development threatened groundwater recharge areas that had to be left uncovered, or else an expensive pipeline to one of the Great Lakes would have to be built to maintain the region’s water supply.

To protect the townships, and to allow for a sustainable increase in the region’s population, denser developments around the cores of the cities had to be encouraged, and a more transit-focused regional plan adopted. However, the regional government lacked control of a critical tool in its planning arsenal: public transit in the region was divided between Cambridge Transit and Kitchener Transit, at the local municipality level.

In the late 1990s, as the powers and responsibilities of the Region of Waterloo and its member municipalities was reviewed and the decision made to upload public transit to the regional level of government. Kitchener Transit and Cambridge Transit were merged, and Grand River Transit started operating on January 1, 2000. With regional land-use and public transit planning now under the same level of government, the Region released its Regional Growth Management Strategy in June 2003. 

Rapid Transit Evolution

The Region of Waterloo is known for its unconventional street network that makes it frustrating for drivers to navigate and people to give directions. As far back as the nineteenth century, any street grid was subverted by local topography, and the area’s reliance on old settler trails for their main streets. Ironically, this may have helped in the design of the rapid transit corridor. The major trip generators of the cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, as well as the City of Cambridge, line up along a limited number of streets and railway rights of way so that they can be connected relatively easily by a single line. Two regional malls, two major universities and a series of downtown cores acted as a string of pearls making the line’s alignment obvious.

The first serious proposal for light rail transit hit the local media in 2003 with a line operating from downtown Kitchener to Uptown Waterloo and then by rail right of way past the universities to the St. Jacobs Farmers Market. Coupled with a convention centre to be built in downtown Kitchener, the proposal was said to cost $256 million. In June 2003, this proposal was refined, dropping the convention centre, extending the line south to Fairview Mall and shifting the northern terminus to Conestoga Mall for a revised budget of $260 million.

With plans on the table, the Region looked to develop the ridership for the LRT corridor. Using a grant from Transport Canada’s Urban Transport Showcase Program, Grand River Transit bought buses and launched an express line between downtown Kitchener and the University of Waterloo. Even though this bus could not travel the rail right-of-way that offered a direct connection between Uptown Waterloo and the University, ridership grew, and the Region expanded the service on September 6, 2005, rechristening the service “iXpress”. The new express line operated from Ainslie Street terminal in Galt to Conestoga Mall via most of the pearls served by the proposed LRT route. The iXpress service cut travel times between north Waterloo and south Cambridge in half to just over an hour. Within weeks, trips were being added just to keep up with demand.

The region considered ten different technologies for implementing rapid transit along the designated “Central Transit Corridor”, including elevated monorails, and personal rapid transit. The experimental technologies were soon dismissed as insufficient. The iXpress bus was adding more trips and evening service to meet demand. The natural evolution to higher order transit required light rail.

The Political Debate

In July 2007, as discussions around the LRT proposal intensified, the provincial government launched a public transit expansion initiative called MoveOntario 2020. The proposal provided support and promised funding to as many as 50 projects across the Greater Toronto Area and Waterloo Region, with Waterloo Region’s proposed LRT being one of the favoured projects. The province initially promised that approved projects would be paid for by contributions from the federal and provincial governments in a 33-66 split, absolving the municipalities of payment. 

The LRT proposal was controversial for some, however, because of how it changed the nature of Waterloo Region and put the needs of transit users ahead of the private car.  This was further complicated when Transport minister Kathleen Wynne announced that the provincial government would only cover up to $300 million of the LRT’s cost, even though the first phase of the project now cost $791 million following a refinement of the design. 

The grassroots organized around the proposal. Proponents coalesced around a group called the Tri-Cities’ Transport Action Group (TriTAG), while opponents organized a group called Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST), who argued that the region’s transportation needs could be handled by “more buses”. 

By now it was 2010, a municipal election year. The merits of the LRT project were hotly debated in the media and on the streets. Anti-LRT activists campaigned against pro-LRT politicians, and the City of Ottawa’s decision to back out of building its own LRT weighed heavily. However, on September 2, 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a Grand River Transit bus as a prop to announce a $265 million federal contribution to the LRT project. While a shot in the arm, it still meant that regional taxpayers were on the hook for close to $250 million.

After the 2010 Election

Even so, the following November, the Region of Waterloo’s voters made their decision. A majority of councillors were elected who supported the construction of the LRT. The grassroots groups continued to debate, however, over the cost and the scope of the project. Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig was upset that Kitchener and Waterloo would be getting rail service first, leaving Cambridge to get along with just an express bus. Things were further complicated by declarations of conflicts of interest. 

With the project a key part of a plan to intensify the core of the region, and with 17,000 properties within an 800-metre radius of a planned LRT station, four municipal politicians (out of 16) owning properties near the project had to recuse themselves from the LRT debate, including Mayor Craig - a strong LRT opponent, and regional chairman Ken Seiling, one of the project’s strongest supporters.

Finally, at a meeting held on June 15, 2011, regional councillors voted 9-2 in favour of proceeding with the project. The announcement was greeted with cheers from the audience at that heavily attended meeting. 

However, the work was far from over. Now began the design process and preparing the contract terms, and discussions continued over the next two years. Regional planners decided to build the line using a public-private partnership where a third party would Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Maintain the project over a 30 year period. The region also decided to piggyback its order for 14 light rail vehicles with a larger order Metrolinx had already established with Bombardier. Finally, after three consortiums submitted bids, GrandLinq was selected as the overseer of the project, and a final contract drawn up.

By this time, it was 2014, and another municipal election was brewing. Opponents to the project organized to make the LRT an election issue once again, with a prominent local businessman, Jay Aissa, running against Ken Seiling for the position of regional chairman. Aissa also tried to get an injunction to stop the LRT project, only to have the injunction dismissed on March 18 when his lawyer refused to disclose who all were behind Aissa’s coalition and the injunction. In the following election, apart from Cambridge mayor Doug Craig (who did not focus his campaign on the LRT), opponents to the LRT were defeated handily. Despite Aissa spending more money on the campaign for regional chairman in the history of Waterloo, Ken Seiling was reelected with 58% of the popular vote.

Construction Begins

The ground officially broke for the construction of the LRT on August 21, 2014 at a ceremony at the site of the LRT’s Operations, Maintenance and Storage Facility on Dutton Drive in northern Waterloo. Most the construction for the rest of 2014 was confined to the storage facility, a utility relocation project on Caroline Street in Uptown Waterloo, and an assortment of small utility relocations at other sites.

In 2015, however, construction began in earnest. GrandLinq opened several construction sites at once, to build the line as quickly as possible. King Street in Waterloo was closed. The first ION tracks were laid in a crossing with Bearinger Road in northern Waterloo, and work began on building the buildings of the Operations, Maintenance and Service Facility.

The construction forced traffic detours, and increased frustration for residents, but GrandLinq also had to work around other uses, including the Waterloo Rail Spur, which remained a working railroad line linking industries in St. Jacobs and Elmira customers elsewhere. In July 2015, GrandLinq performed a five-day blitz to demolish and replace the rail bridge over Laurel Creek in Waterloo Park, so as not to delay freight trains more than they had to. By August 2015, the northbound track had been laid alongside the Waterloo Spur from Waterloo Park to Northfield.

The construction revealed unexpected surprises, as workers dug down to move sewer and water pipes as well as gas, electric and communications lines. Some rediscovered work was laid as late as 2007, such as large amounts of concrete poured around underground infrastructure at the intersection Charles and Gaukel, and then forgotten about. This paled in comparison to the shocking discovery of a corduroy road beneath King Street in Uptown Waterloo, however.

The Corduroy Road

In January 2016, work crews closed King Street through Uptown Waterloo for most of the year, much to the consternation of local businesses. However, even without the tracks being laid down, the sewer and water infrastructure would have to be replaced, and would have closed King Street anyway in a few years’ time. However, on March 14, 2016, crews digging down on King Street discovered rows of 200-year-old logs.

This was the original roadway laid down to help the region’s first European settlers to cross the marshy land. It was a significant archeological find, and heritage legislation came into play. Work had to stop and archeologists brought in to document the find and report to the Ontario Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Sport. In all, the corduroy road delayed work in the area by six weeks. A second corduroy road was discovered in May 2016 near the Conestoga terminal, but did not delay construction as severely.

Another scare came on October 19, 2016, when a fire broke out at the Operations, Management and Storage Facility. Thick black smoke poured out of the building and across nearby Highway 85 but, after crews responded, the fire was put out, and damage proved to be minimal.

The Dome

GrandLinq did find other ways to catch up. A major part of the project that was encountering delays was the construction of the King Street underpass beneath the railway tracks just north of downtown Kitchener, the future site of a new central transit terminal and GO Train station. With the ambitious construction project now weeks behind schedule by December 2015, GrandLinq set up a huge temporary dome around the underpass, in order to keep temperatures above freezing inside, allowing concrete to be poured and cured throughout the winter. The prominence of the temporary dome (it was over three storeys tall and big as a football field) brought attention to its $2 million cost, sparking controversy, but the move did help bring the King Underpass closer to schedule. Smaller tarpaulin installations along the line to heat the setting concrete helped keep construction going through the winter months.

Construction intensified throughout 2016, with more roads shut down, more businesses complaining about lost foot traffic, and pedestrians and drivers complaining about confusing diversions. The Erb/Caroline intersection closed in May 2016, further pressuring traffic in Uptown Waterloo. GrandLinq, however, promised that this would be the last year of major construction, as it laid down the bulk of the rail for the project, and started installing signals throughout the line.  Construction began on the terminal at Conestoga Mall in March 2016, and the first catenary wire was installed along the tracks of the Waterloo Spur. The first station platforms began to be poured.

By the end of 2016, GrandLinq announced that the LRT construction was 90% complete. Most of the tracks had been laid and the station infrastructure was going up. Only the King underpass still needed significant work.

Bombardier Delays

GrandLinq had been working quickly in anticipation of a September 2017 opening date. Unfortunately, they were not responsible for providing the LRT vehicles to operate on their tracks. Bombardier had initially promised to piggyback Waterloo Region’s order with a large order maintained by Metrolinx for LRT projects throughout the GTA — a move that saved the Region $1 million per vehicle. However, Bombardier’s ongoing delays with the construction of its Flexity streetcars for the Toronto Transit Commission came into play. The first test vehicle had been scheduled to arrive in Waterloo Region in October 2016. By the middle of 2016, it was clear this wasn’t going to happen, and the region announced that the opening of the project would be pushed back to 2018.

Much to rail fans’ frustrations, Ottawa’s new LRT, built for its system by Alstom, was unveiled and moved out to greet reporters under its own power December 2, 2016. Although Ottawa’s project was larger and more complicated, there seemed a risk that it would open ahead of Waterloo’s LRT, robbing the region of a point of pride. Fortunately, on February 15, 2017, Bombardier finally announced that the region’s first LRT was ready to deliver from its Thunder Bay plant. Local transit fans and media tracked the delivery of the car (numbered 500) over the next few days as it travelled down the tracks towards Waterloo, and was finally unloaded off the Waterloo spur and towed into the Operations, Maintenance and Storage Facility on February 27, 2017. The first of the remaining 13 vehicles, to be built at Bombardier’s Millhaven plant, would be delivered the following June.

Special Features

Waterloo Region’s LRT is built to the most modern LRT standards. Sections of open track feature concrete ties, while embedded tracks are placed on solid foundations. Transit signals along the route will give LRT vehicles priority over competing automobiles, and railway cross bucks will separate cars from LRT vehicles at certain crossings.

The LRT will share tracks with freight trains where the line uses the Waterloo Spur from King Street to Northfield. Freight trains will be confined to night runs after the LRT stops operation. To give the freight cars clearance around LRT platforms, switches leading to gauntlet tracks were installed, allowing freight cars to pass further away from the platforms’ edges.

In consultation with the Region of Waterloo, GrandLinq designed the ION stations in such a way that both maintained a unified look for the line, but also reflected the local character of the neighbourhoods surrounding each station. Each station features glass-roofed awnings and at least one anchor wall. This square wall, dominating the station, features the ION logo prominently, and is adorned with a grid of ceramic, glass or stone tiles in a colour combination that evokes the surrounding neighbourhood. The colours and designs were chosen by local community groups, business improvement areas and other stakeholders like the Universities. 

In addition to this design, in November 2016, Waterloo Region commissioned seven new works of art for stations on the route. Sixty-six submissions were made, and a short list of fifteen considered over the new year. On February 15, 2017, the region announced its selections, pending the receipt of $675,000 in funding. The winners were Continuum, by Catherine Paleczny (to be displayed at Conestoga station), Network, by Ken Hall (to be displayed at Research and Technology station), Spinal Column by Sandra Dunn (to be displayed at Grand River Hospital station), Because Cats Can’t Fly by Veronica and Edwin Dam de Nogales (to be displayed at Kitchener Market station), Tall Tales of Mill Street by Terry O’Neil and Tara Cooper (to be displayed at Mill station), Three Sisters, by Katharine Harvey and Lindsey Lickers (to be displayed at Block Line station) and Shaping Residency, by Stephen Cruise (to be displayed at Fairway station).

On Opening and After

The ION LRT is expected to open in early 2018 with a ridership of around 27,000 boardings per day, and increase to 56,000 daily boardings by 2031. It will operate alongside a grid network of iXpress routes, feeding passengers into the rapid transit line from the Region’s suburbs to the east and west. These routes have been developing in the years leading up to the launch of the LRT and already helped Grand River Transit to more than double its ridership since the year 2000.

In 2016, the region started early planning for the phase 2 extension of the ION LRT from Fairview Park Mall in south Kitchener to Ainslie Street terminal in Galt. The line would likely cross over Fairway Road to River Road and follow King Street to a stop at Sportsworld, enter Preston via Shantz Hill, Fountain Street and King Street with a stop near the King/Eagle intersection, and follow Eagle/Pinebush and Hespelar Road with stops at Speedvale, Hespelar/Pinebush, Cambridge Centre, and the Delta intersection. Some plans call for the line to approach Ainslie Street via the CP rail tracks and Beverley, bypassing the Delta Intersection (between Hespelar Road and Dundas Street North) and the northern part of downtown Galt.

Plans for the phase 2 extension to the LRT will be finalized in 2017 and will go to the province for approval. It will be up to the province to decide if the project is to be funded, and by how much.

When Waterloo Region’s ION LRT opens in 2018, Waterloo Region will become one of the smallest cities, not only in Canada but in North America, to boast an LRT route. Its population is comparable to Tucson, Arizona, whose Sun Link carries 4,000 passengers on an average weekday.

But Waterloo Region’s population is also comparable to that of Calgary in 1981, the year that city opened its LRT to the public. Calgary’s C-Train quickly achieved its goal of 40,000 boardings per day and, today, handles 310,700 passengers per day, at the heart of a city that has grown to 1.2 million. The Region of Waterloo expects similar growth patterns in the coming decades, and the ION LRT will be an anchor to the area’s growth and transformation into a major Canadian city.

Waterloo ION LRT Document Archive


Waterloo Region Electric Transit Image Archive

References