From the Financial Post:
That the push for new high-speed train systems in Ontario and Alberta is gaining momentum just as the federal Liberals prepare to take office with plans to double infrastructure spending is surely more than a coincidence.
But the head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service, Via Rail Canada, says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.
“Back in 2012, there was a report published that pegged the cost of high-speed rail between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal at $10 billion, and for $10 billion it would get you 10-million customers,” said Via CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. Simply providing dedicated passenger lines at conventional speed, he said, “will cost $3 billion for seven million (passengers), so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit.”
If Via had a dedicated track to use in the busy corridor between Toronto and Montreal, Desjardins-Siciliano estimates the railway could increase its annual passenger load on the route from 2.1 million currently to 6.8 million within 15 years of construction using what he calls “high-frequency rail.”
Just last week, Ontario appointed a former federal cabinet minister, David Collenette, as a special adviser for high-speed rail, which the provincial Liberal government envisions running between Windsor, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. The same week, Alberta’s NDP government said it was in the early stages of studying a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton, something previous governments have mused about but never bought into.
Advocates of high-speed rail point out that the largest untapped market in the world is North America, where, for a variety of reasons, people have not embraced the concept in the same way their European and Asian counterparts have.
This means there is tremendous potential to develop ultra-fast railways here, a major infrastructure conference in Toronto heard Tuesday. But the first challenge is winning over travellers who are used to driving or flying to their destinations, said Tim Keith, CEO of Texas Central Partners, a private company that’s developing North America’s first-ever high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.
“It’s not easy to create a high-speed-rail system in an economy that doesn’t accept high-speed rail as a mode of transport,” Keith told the conference, put on by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.
“The biggest challenge I have is introducing a product to market that isn’t used to the product.”
Desjardins-Siciliano has been drumming up interest among Canada’s major pension funds in building a new dedicated track between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal that would allow the Crown corporation to improve its deteriorating on-time performance.
Currently, 90 per cent of the track that Via uses is owned by Canadian National Railway Co., and is susceptible to regular bottlenecks as freight trains and passenger trains vie for the same space. In the second quarter, Via’s trains were on time 70 per cent of the time, down from 79 per cent a year earlier.
“Freight trains today are longer and heavier and therefore slower than ever,” Desjardins-Siciliano said in a recent interview. “That’s why growing (our service) requires an alternative track that would be dedicated to passenger rail.”
He noted that regular-speed rail also has the benefit of being able to stop at points in between the major cities, which meets Via’s objective of replacing travel by car, not travel by air.
And Sebastien Sherman, senior managing director for the Americas at Borealis Infrastructure, pointed out on Tuesday’s panel that high-speed rail plans “need a degree of population density,” more common in Asia and Europe than in a more sparsely populated country such as Canada. Borealis is an arm of the OMERS pension fund that owns 50 per cent of HS1 Ltd., the U.K.’s high-speed line that runs through the Chunnel. He noted that any high-speed project comes with its construction risks, demand risks, regulatory risks and political risks.
“The last thing we’d want to do is spend many years trying to advance a project if it doesn’t have community support,” he said.