Putting the Rail Back in the Hamilton Street Railway
From the Nest, Issue 12
by Ian Borsuk
Over the coming years, downtown Hamilton will be going through disruptive but transformative change as the B-Line light rail transit line (LRT) begins construction. In preparation for this radical physical change to the downtown, Hamilton’s City Council is going to have to make decisions that will ensure that the LRT, when fully operational, maximizes its benefit for the city as the spine of our public transit network.
One of these decisions will be who is to operate the LRT and, unlike the previous form the project took, it should be an easy one – the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR).
The LRT project, before it was controversially cancelled and brought back again, was essentially an opaque public private partnership (PPP or P3) where the winning bidder would design, build, operate, and maintain the LRT.
After lengthy lobbying by local politicians and advocates, Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative government decided to resurrect the project, with some key differences. While the individual differences could fill several articles on their own, the main difference was that City Council would now be the one to decide who operates and maintains the line.
The last time this issue arose, a campaign was led by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107 (the HSR bus drivers’ union) to Keep Transit Public.
A core argument for ATU 107 was that their collective agreement with the City, which has been built upon over decades of negotiations, clearly stipulates that they are to operate any future public transit lines within the City of Hamilton and that leaving the B-Line LRT to be operated by a private operator (with a unionized workforce or not) would be in violation of this agreement.
Council and the public debated the merits of this campaign, which ultimately culminated in some in the public claiming that the push by ATU 107, and then Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Green, delayed necessary approvals of the project to “lock it in” before Doug Ford could cancel it.
While it is easy to understand this sentiment, it’s important for us to recognize just how different the situation is now for Hamilton, and not just with respect to the details of the deal that the province and Metrolinx has presented.
First, the previous debate happened within a context of crisis. Despite its earlier approval, the HSR’s Ten Year Transit Strategy had been delayed in 2017 which resulted in missed buses and emergency public meetings for riders. Public trust both in the HSR as well as Council’s commitment to maintaining it were shaky at best. This happened in tandem with ATU 107 expressing serious complaints about HSR management.
In many ways it did truly look like committing to HSR operation of the B-Line LRT was a gamble. Yet, in the years since, we have seen a massive turn around for the HSR, thanks to public pressure on Council to remain committed to ongoing funding and (now former) HSR director Debbie Dalle Vedove managing to not only ensure successful implementation of service improvements but also greatly improve her relationship with the drivers.
Not only is the HSR significantly in a better position to take over operation of the B-Line LRT and make it a fully integrated spine of our HSR network, but we’ve also seen how LRT P3s can go off the rails, quite literally like the trains did in Ottawa.
Hamilton’s B-Line LRT will be under construction for years to come, and it will cause disruption and hardship for residents and businesses alike – it’s important for Hamilton to ensure that once it is built it is operated and maintained by a public institution that is transparent and responsive to the needs of the public.
Organizations such as Hamilton ACORN, the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, the Hamilton District Labour Council, Environment Hamilton, and the Hamilton Transit Riders Union have already publicly endorsed this direction for the LRT, and surely more will join in the discussion.
It’s vital for the future of downtown, and the city as a whole, that this city-changing transit infrastructure be under the influence and control of us locally through our HSR.
Ian Borsuk is an active resident who is passionate about improving public transit for all Hamiltonians to achieve mobility justice, and to fight climate change; he is the Climate Campaign Coordinator for Environment Hamilton