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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

New train station in Cobourg unnecessary

When tough economic times exist, it is really hard to dish out any criticism towards those bringing big spending announcements. So, when Northumberland MP Rick Norlock, Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty and VIA Rail Chief Operating Officer John Marginson stood on the platform of the Cobourg train station late last week to announce a $7-million plan to build a new station and improve the tracks, it is considered blasphemy to be critical.

Nobody wants to appear rude or ungrateful when money is being passed down from the federal to the local level. Still, residents of Northumberland need to pause for a moment to give careful consideration to this overt generosity. So, it is with all due respect…

First, the money given to the region is taxpayer’s dollars. So, it is within the purview of any citizen to be critical. It does not take a great deal of cynicism to realize this announcement is good politics for Norlock and Delanty, both of whom are facing elections in the near future.

And, it is hard to believe there is a case to build a new station – especially one that is worth $7 million. One of the biggest points not communicated to the community is the rationale for such a huge change.

The current station appears to be in fine shape and seems to meet the needs of the community. Yet, in the 2008 annual report, VIA announces a five-year investment plan to upgrade and modernize 22 stations, including Brantford, Guelph, London and Niagara Fall, among others.

To justify the new buildings, the report uses terms like “modernize” and “serve customers better”. Improvements include better platforms, lounges, lighting and boarding gates, along with interior and exterior renovations.

There is no question VIA needs to upgrade tracks, rehabilitate bridges and improve pedestrian overpasses. This is going to create a better service and enhance safety.

However, a new station is unnecessary.

The current building appears to be sufficient and underutilized, as well as represent an important piece of architectural history for the region. The quaint interior is full of character. New is not always better. Modern does not equal improved.

Originally, a Grand Trunk Railway station built in 1911; the Romanesque building is a significant structure. It was completely restored in 1993, only 16 years ago. Only half of the available space is used. Several entrepreneurs have tried to operate a restaurant without success. It would appear there is an opportunity to make changes while still preserving the building and meeting the stated objectives of VIA.

Shouldn’t VIA and the federal government spend taxpayer’s dollars wisely. Rather than build a new structure, the current building should be renovated, keeping its historic façade both inside and out.

The greatest fear for those who appreciate historic architecture is the future of the building. Cobourg council has an abysmal record when it comes to preserving historic buildings. One only needs to remember the old Post Office on King Street, the Lydia Pinkham building, St. Michael’s Rectory, Whitehall, and the Pump House to know how ineffective council can be in saving significant architecture. Even Victoria Hall, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2010, was nearly turned into a parking lot before citizens stepped forward to save it.

Rail enthusiasts, architectural conservationists and ratepayers need to raise their voices to save this wonderful building and save taxpayers dollars from being spent on an unnecessary new building. Take the money and build more and better tracks to improve services. Buy even more new rail cars.

In the meantime, VIA Rail needs to consult with the community and find a way to preserve this historic structure and guarantee its future through daily use.

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