Columnist: Canada’s high-speed train stuck in station

From The Toronto Star:

Of all the issues endlessly studied without resolution in Canada, high-speed rail (HSR) tops the list.

The latest unreleased HSR study, which was revealed by the Star last week, only confirms that more than 30 years of rosy political promises and large consulting fees have accomplished nothing.

Canada remains the only G8 nation that hasn’t taken the first step on the high-speed trail, while even China, Russia, Turkey, Morocco and Uzbekistan have launched HSR projects. By 2025, there will be 43,000 kilometres of high-speed lines worldwide, but none in Canada if we don’t change our ways.

No one should expect that change to come from this $3.4 million study commissioned by the federal, Ontario and Quebec governments. It merely replows ground covered by a joint $6 million Ontario-Quebec government study in 1995, which flowed from a 1991 interprovincial study that consumed another $6 million.

This time around, the recommendation is 200 or 300 km/hour service from Toronto to Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal, Trois-Rivieres and Quebec, with nothing for southwestern Ontario or across the border to connect with the expanding U.S. rail passenger network. Other cities along the truncated corridor would have their VIA service replaced by buses. Much of the existing passenger infrastructure would be dumped in favour of an all-new Quebec-Toronto “greenfield” system costing $14 billion to $16 billion that wouldn’t carry its first passenger for 15 years.

The height of ridiculousness is a disclaimer in the report stating there was an error in the comparative air fares used for the ridership and revenue projections, so the authors “cannot be held responsible for decisions made based on these uncorrected forecasts and analyses.”

In short, this report is just another expensive trainload of frustration for those who want the multiple, sustainable benefits of HSR unleashed in Canada. But it does unintentionally highlight the reasons it remains a Canadian dream when it is or soon will be a reality in 26 other countries.

HSR emerged overseas in the 1960s when existing passenger routes reached their speed and capacity limits. New high-speed lines corrected the limitations of the old ones, which remained in service for fast regional trains connecting with the new express services.

Furthermore, investment has usually been incremental and continuous, not typically loaded into “big bang” projects that take years to deliver. Public money first improved the existing lines and then built the new segments to progressively throttle up speed, ridership and revenue, which was poured back into the entire rail passenger system.

Underlying this investment overseas are government policies aimed at establishing rail as the backbone of their entire transportation systems.

Such practical vision and political will have long been lacking in Canada, although there has been a marginal improvement of late thanks to the Harper government’s investment of more than $300 million in the infrastructure used by VIA between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the federal and provincial money that continues to flow into the competing highways and air facilities, but it’s a start. While this investment won’t increase the current maximum speed of 160 km/hour, it will eliminate chokepoints to decrease the end-to-end travel times slightly and allow for more trains.

In fact, VIA is the only agency with any idea of how we can financially, operationally and politically build HSR. The Crown corporation even produced a blueprint to do it back in 2002, although it was sidetracked through no fault of its own. Phased in over five years, the VIAFast plan would maximize the existing infrastructure and require only 100 kilomtres of new line for the 240 km/hour express trains that would link the major centres along the entire 1,200-kilometre Quebec-Windsor corridor. Regional 160 km/hour trains would continue to serve all the intermediate points. There would be collateral benefits for rail freight service throughout the corridor, helping to shift truck traffic off the highways.

In 2002, VIAFast was estimated at $2.6 billion. That’s less than a fifth of the cost of the dream scheme in the current HSR study and about two-thirds of the cost of the publicly funded bridge and highway proposed for the Windsor-Detroit border crossing.

VIAFast is a logical, fair and affordable way to quickly implement HSR service in the most densely populated and heavily travelled corridor in Canada. This is the plan we need.
What we don’t need are more studies. The benefits of HSR and the methods for delivering it were proved long ago in numerous other countries. The time has come for our governments to either get aboard or stop this wasteful cycle of studies, which only frustrates the public and fails to resolve central Canada’s growing mobility problem.
Greg Gormick is a Toronto transportation writer and consultant.