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High Speed Rail link in Windsor-Quebec City corridor is premature

There has been a lot of talk lately about putting in a high speed passenger rail system in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, especially between Toronto and Montreal. Earlier this week, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and Quebec premier Jean Charest held a joint news conference in Montreal at which McGuinty asked: should we be investing in the 401 or in high speed rail along that corridor? "I know what my kids would answer," he concluded. Their hearts are certainly in the right place, and I would not object to the successful completion of any such project, but I believe a high speed link in the corridor is premature and risks being a huge waste of money that sets rail transit back. My three main concerns are: 1) We have to walk before we can run. 2) Rail's primary competition is the automobile, not the airplane. 3) A major failure in this project could hobble passenger rail service improvements in Canada for yet another generation.

1) We have to walk before we can run.

Right now, Via rail is underfunded, overpriced, and hopelessly inadequate in most of the country. The lack of any rail service to some of Canada's largest cities is downright embarrassing for our country. The hub-and-spoke nature of the network means point to point service between Waterloo region and Brantford or Hamilton, Sarnia and Windsor, or outside the corridor between Calgary and Edmonton is non-existent, though freight tracks directly connect all of these. For example, to take a train from Guelph to Hamilton requires a transfer in Toronto, but there are no sensibly scheduled connections for the VIA-to-GO transfer required, though tracks exist that directly connect Guelph and Hamilton downtowns.

There are many trains running each day between Toronto and Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, and Ottawa and Montreal. Between the three routes, approximately 30 trains run each day. But a round trip from Guelph to Ottawa for one person, booked well in advance with "super-saver" discounts, costs $159.60, which is more than driving costs for one person. Make that a last minute booking or a whole family, and the cost for taking the train is astronomical.

2) Rail's primary competition is the automobile, not the airplane.

Is speed the biggest issue for travellers getting between the cities, or is cost, access, and frequency of service?

Between travel to the airport and delays inherent in flying, taking the train between Montreal and Toronto is already comparable in speed. It is also comparable in price. Some people take the train, some people take the plane. But the frequency of service favours the plane. The cost as noted above for taking either far exceeds that of driving, and that is what we should be striving to fix.

High speed rail, if implemented, will cut a few more minutes off the train trip and may even make it over-all faster than flying between the cities. What it will not do is make taking the train any more affordable or easy to take at the last minute. Concentrating on building a new high speed rail corridor between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto assumes that everyone wants to get between those points and thus the only competition is between airplanes and trains.

The real adversary for the train, though, is the car. I would love, for example, to take the train to visit my family. I simply cannot. Trains get me most of the way there, stopping around 100 km short, cost more than twice as much as driving, take longer -- not because of the time between Toronto and Montreal, but because of the time from Guelph to Toronto, the transfer, and Montreal to the Laurentians, which has to be done by bus. It is not that rail service cannot go there. Like most of the country, the tracks spanning the Laurentians from Mont Laurier, 138.2 miles to the rest of the country's network at Ste-Thrse, near Montreal, were instrumental in developing the region. Rail service even ran there until about 25 years ago. But those tracks are now a biking trail, with an ever-improved freeway nearby. Commuter trains, as of recently, run from Montreal's Windsor Station to St-Jrme, but there is no logical connection from Montreal Central station, where Via trains converge, to Montreal Windsor station, where commuter trains converge. There is simply no rational way to take the train.

An Acela high speed train passes a Providence and Worcester freight train in Old Saybrook, Connecticut on August 31st, 2007. High speed rail exists in the US' most populous corridor from Boston to Washington, DC, sharing tracks with local freight companies along the way.
3) A major failure in this project could hobble passenger rail service improvements in Canada for yet another generation.

Let's say that we do start building this high speed rail project between Montreal and Toronto. Conventional wisdom is that you would need a new dedicated right of way. 300 km/h passenger trains and 80 km/h freight trains should probably not be sharing the same tracks, although the US east coast corridor Acela high speed system does run on active freight lines. The cost of building this high speed system would be in the many billions of dollars, would require extensive environmental assessments and massive expropriations. 300 km into the 600 km construction between Montreal and Toronto, I can see the project years delayed and billions of dollars over budget. A government will fall on the wasted money and the project will be shelved for an extended period of time. Once this happens, any time anyone brings up rail investment, this project will be brought up as an example of why it is not economical, and the current push for high speed rail will turn out to be one of the most devastating strikes against mass transit this country has ever faced.

But let's think positively for a second. The project goes ahead, only costs the projected $3 billion, is completed on time, and brings the Via trip between Montreal and Toronto from 4 hours to two-and-a-half. What will we have accomplished? Ticket prices will be far above what they are today for the Via trip, and we will have saved 90 minutes per trip. The new infrastructure and disrupted lives will have cost each and every Canadian in the area of a mere $100, a bargain compared to normal highway improvements. But for this, not one citizen anywhere in the country who does not already have rail service benefits in any way whatsoever.

Do we need to invest in our passenger rail network in Canada?

We sure do, but if we do not do it properly, it could set us back generations. Spending billions of dollars to make a slightly accelerated trip between Toronto and Montreal with this proposed high speed rail link does not drive anyone out of their cars. It does not make it easier for families to travel any great distance together without a car. It does not provide service to any places that need it but do not have it. It does not cut the cost of rail compared to road (or air). It really does not accomplish much of anything, and it frankly is not an efficient use of our tax-dollars.

Take those billions that this link would cost, give it all to Via rail for an increased capital and operating budget, and see what we can do. Maybe, just maybe, our rail service will actually improve and expand, and people who do not live in either Toronto or Montreal will be able to get places by train. Consider what Via already can do with the $170 million per year that it is provided as an operating subsidy and imagine what it could do with the minimum 17x that which a high speed corridor alone would cost to build.

What could they accomplish for that money? Consider how far an approximately $0.7 billion 5-year subsidy announced by David Collonette, cancelled by then Voyageur Colonial Bus Lines part-owner Paul Martin, and reinstated by Jim Flaherty, is getting us, albeit almost entirely in the corridor, according to wikipedia:

On October 11, 2007, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced federal government funding of $691.9 million over five years, of which $519 million is capital funding, and the remainder additional operating funding. The capital funding is earmarked to refurbish VIA's fleet of 54 F40 locomotives to meet new emissions standards and extend their service lives by 15-20 years, refurbish the interiors of the LRC coaches, reduce track capacity bottlenecks and speed restrictions in the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor, and make repairs to a number of stations across the network.

The technology to build higher speed rail on our existing infrastructure already exists and would cost a fraction the amount of a dedicated high speed corridor. The United Aircraft Corporation TurboTrain ran between Montreal and Toronto from 1968 to 1982, and although it ran at the same speed as today's Via trains on those tracks, it was proven to be capable of running significantly faster and ran faster than that era's other passenger trains. The UK's network is full of high speed passenger trains that operate on old, curvy, freight tracks without the need for separate corridors. The UK even has freight locomotives capable of going 125mph, faster than our fastest passenger trains, on their existing tracks. It is not necessary for us to invest in a new corridor when we can tweak the existing one for a much lower cost. If we are to build a new corridor, let it be somewhere that does not already have one.

As I put it to a friend of mine on the Bruce Peninsula, "I think rail investment is good, but $3 billion to save a few people a few minutes does not seem sensible when people like you barely remember what a train looks like." It is not the time to build a new high speed corridor to better service the best serviced rail corridor in the country. It is time to make the rail service we already have affordable, useful, efficient, expand it into the many regions of the country that no longer have it, and better service the ones that do. When it comes to rail, we really must learn to walk before we try to run.

Posted at 07:26 on June 06, 2008

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

GTA West Community Advisory Group meeting 1 | money transit | Conservative sincerity

Mound of Sound writes at Fri Jun 6 12:13:04 EDT 2008...

Rail's return is inevitable, not primarily for passenger transport but for freight. It's the one workable, fuel efficient, cleaner and more affordable alternative to long haul trucking. Since we're heading down that route anyway, it makes sense (to me anyway) to invest in the necessary infrastructure for a new passenger and freight rail system.

David Graham (cdlu.net) writes at Fri Jun 6 12:29:30 EDT 2008...

It is not inevitable, no part of it will happen on its own. It has to be guided. I would like to see rational investment in rail systems, both passenger and freight, across the entire network that helps us get there. Starting with an orgy of cash on the corridor when there's the whole rest of the country to deal with doesn't strike me as a good way to get us there.

Josh Prowse (prowsej.wordpress.com) writes at Sat Jun 7 00:26:52 EDT 2008...

I'm travelling this summer. But not on the train. I'm taking the bus. It's the only way that I can travel to Calgary. To Petawawa. To Whitehorse. I don't care about time, I care about being able to go where I want. You're spot-on.

H. Smith (www.none.com) writes at Sun Jun 8 20:57:41 EDT 2008...


We need transportation where the heaviest volume of traffic is.


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