Railway tracks criss-cross urban landscapes, reminders of the days before Mack trucks and highways, when trains were a city's lifeline.
Now, one old abandoned line is on the cusp of being resurrected as a multi-purpose linear park - and possibly the city's most important sustainable transit corridor, stretching from the Junction to Union Station.
If all the pieces fall into place, west- enders will be able to bike downtown in 15 minutes flat. But that's a big if. While half of the trail is already in the works, the fate of the southern portion is entangled in the Pearson Airport rail project, and activists are losing hope that it will ever see the light of day.
The West Toronto Railpath follows the old CP tracks, which haven't been used in over 40 years, running south across Bloor and Dundas from the Junction and linking with tracks that cross Lansdowne, Brock, Queen and King.
In 2001, a committee of west Toronto activists from the Roncesvalles Macdonell Residents Association and environmentalists from the Community Bike Network and Evergreen got together to assist the city in the creation and stewardship of this unusual park.
After negotiations with CN, the city purchased the CP lead segment last fall for less than $1 million, and $2 million to $3.5 million has been approved in the city budget to complete the trail as far as Dundas West.
On the northern segment of the trail, the tracks have already been removed and the soil cleansed of creosote. Plans are in the works to stockpile an inventory of bird, butterfly and native plant species for naturalization along the tracks.
However, the Railpath's southern progress is at a standstill. Many fear the southern trail - it's 10 metres wide - might interfere with the proposed Union Station-to-Pearson link. It's this that explains why no one is making declarative statements about phase two of the path, which would go to Strachan and join an existing bike trail to Union Station.
According to Alex Shevchuk of parks and rec's planning department, the city hopes to acquire the southern portion, but "the concern is ensuring there is enough land base to accommodate both the trail and the rail link and potential GO Train expansion."
The city's hands are tied, he says, until the rail link consortium and Transport Canada do the enviro assessment expected to start this summer - the second EA done for the site.
According to Imants Hausmanis of GO Transit, which is part of the consortium, "A GO Train expansion will not affect the Railpath [in the northern portion], but in the southern part there is just no land. We have the right of operation in our corridor. We need that land for our own expansion and our own business interests. The city has come upon a huge stumbling block. It may have to expropriate private land."
At Transport Canada, rep Tina Bouchard says her department is not in the decision-making loop and that "the EA is the appropriate process to examine opportunities to inclue other initiatives in the corridor.'
Bike advocates, pointing to the enormous impact of rail-to-trail projects elsewhere, still hope for a positive resolution. The Manhattan High Line, a 2.4-kilometre elevated railroad, will be that city's first green promenade, a raised linear park cutting through the Meatpacking District.
When it opens in the fall, New Yorkers will be able to stroll among hazelnut trees and wild petunias a stone's throw from 10th Avenue.
Toronto's rail-to-trail conversion story could be quite different. First off, our proposed path is situationally unique. Tom Timmins, a member of the Friends of the Railpath committee, says, "It's one of the few conversions that could change transportation in our urban centre. We have few urban-core trails."
This trail would not just be about strolling through wild milkweed and contemplating native grasses, but also about solving our traffic gridlock.
It has other pluses, as well, says Stewart Chisholm of Evergreen. The trail "puts a sustainable transportation corridor through neighbourhoods that have typically been marginalized, bringing a lot of people through to support local businesses."
The city has supported the northern part of the plan since 1997 and has already done the feasibility studies. Says Timmins, "The city loves this project. It's high-impact, with very little funds required."
City staff have also conducted engineering studies on two bridges that are part of the spur line (crossing Dupont and Bloor) in the hope of including them in the project. "The plan is to preserve these bridges as part of our industrial heritage. We also think they'd be a great place to showcase local public art," says Shevchuk.
Friends of the Railpath are anxiously waiting for someone to make a commitment about the southern portion. "It might be another five or six years before the shovel hits dirt," says Chisholm resignedly.
The trail link to Union Station is an "unrealistic goal" at this point, says Timmins, but he remains hopeful. "On the municipal level there's been lots of activity. On the federal level, we've come to a standstill. The federal government, CN and Transport Canada all need to help out."
The abandoned railway is far from abandoned. Harrington and Hoyle Ltd., a local landscape architecture firm, has done the preliminary planning and design to determine the budget required for the northern portion. The city is now sifting through proposals from a number of firms to do the work.
In terms of the whole trail, for now the people of west Toronto are hoping that all things really do come to those who wait.