Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nov 28 - Be Careful What You Wish For

Our local rag recently ran the following article - Go train: Are we next? You can read the it for yourself, but the upshot of the article is that residents of Kitchener-Waterloo will soon be able to use the GO Transit rail service into Toronto. The story then goes on to provide some sad analysis on what this means for London's chances of getting similar GO commuter service someday. I use the word 'sad' because it's a painful intellectual stretch to bring a local connection to this story. It's very unlikely that London will ever justify or need the slow-moving GO rail service.

The paper solicited the Usual Suspects for their opinions on the matter. The following quote from Gerry Macartney, manager of the London District Chamber of Commerce, caught my eye:
"Should we be making a pitch for it? If there is a business case for it, the answer is yes. Anything we can do to improve our economic plight, make our workforce more mobile and have more access to Toronto."
While Gerry knows a lot more about business stuff that I, it seems to me there are a couple of errors in his perspective. First off, there will never be a proper business case for Go rail service in London. The service is heavily subsidized by provincial taxpayers - aimed at providing lower-cost fares to commuters in the GTA. In financial terms, it's a money-loser that is basically a subsidy to GTA businesses who need access to workers (who live in outlying communities because economics make it necessary).

So if the balance sheet doesn't provide a business case, you need to look at the potential user-base and impacts on commuter traffic between London and the GTA. Again, the numbers are not there. There just isn't the mass of London residents who need to commute into the GTA on a regular basis. And for those London workers who do need to travel into Toronto from time to time, my guess is that a 3-hour commute (one-way) is not going to be very compelling (the Kitchener-Waterloo commute time into Toronto is estimated to be 2 hours).

My second problem with Macartney's quote is the idea that we need access to Toronto for our mobile workforce. A Toronto-centric workforce is exactly what London does not need right now (I know because I live that dream). Let's go back a decade or so when London was home to two local giants: Canada Trust and London Life. These corporations were bought out by larger giants in other places. The fact that these companies still have some corporate presence in London is due, in part, to a local, skilled workforce who could keep these operations running.

Over the years, both operations have been subsumed to some degree by their masters in other places. They do not have the local presence they once did. Their more skilled local workers are more and more forced to work part-time in other cities, providing business for Via and WestJet on a regular basis. In some cases, those local workers have simply given up and relocated closer to head office. I'm convinced, however, that easy and cheap commuter service to Toronto - be it GO Transit or the forever-mythical high-speed rail link - would all-but-eliminate the need for some companies to have a local presence. Instead, they would get access to local skilled workers without the nuisance of local bricks-and-mortar (and likely a healthy chunk of taxpayer subsidy to keep the commuter lines viable).

Maybe I'm living in the past. Maybe the days of big companies with a local presence are past us. But I think any manner of GTA-centric commuter service will only add to the hollowing-out of London, and further cement a service-based economy as the norm. We do have a skilled workforce in London. We do have the educational institutions to refresh and replenish our skilled workforce. In my mind, it's a far better business case to make the jobs come to Us, rather than sending Us to the jobs.

1 comment:

David said...

So now you just stop? Now that you have me jonesing for a fix of daily blogging fun, you just turn off the faucet.

Harsh, dude. Harsh.