High speed rail study is wrong


(Oct. 15, 2011) Over two-years in the making behind closed doors, sat on by Ottawa, Quebec and Ontario governments, the much anticipated Quebec City-Windsor high speed rail study has turned up today as a leaked document (Tess Kalinowski, Toronto Star), and as a huge embarrassment.

"This $3.4 million study makes high speed rail look bad," says Transport Action Canada spokesperson, Tony Turrittin.  "It's full of faulty assumptions.  Here's a real groaner.  Because of costs, Windsor doesn't get high speed rail.  But the study excluded the potential for cross-border traffic from the U.S.  That's unreal."

The most serious defect of the leaked study is its neglect of incremental development of a fast train network for Central Canada.  Instead of looking at upgrading and expanding what VIA Rail already has, the study exclusively focuses on the most expensive system of ultra-high speed trains that require an all new right-of-way.

In this plan, only a couple of high speed routes would be built with no intermediate stops between main cities.  The study then advocates cutting all VIA Rail services to smaller cities in Central Canada which would only be left with buses.  "To make matters worse," says Turrittin, "the plan advocates discriminatory high fares between Montreal and Toronto."

"The plan is a step backward," says Turrittin.  "We're being left with highway dependence, reliance on ever scarcer fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gases.  Around the world, countries are expanding their networks of passenger trains of all kinds, adding fast trains to commuter, regional, and inter-city electric train services."

"This study with its faulty assumptions should be disregarded in favour of taking action now," Turrittin stated.  "We could begin with following recent government investment in VIA Rail with further strategic grants, but this time adding in open public consultations on how to expand rail for the 21st century." He added: "Abandoning the train network as a sacrifice for a single high speed line with no local stops is the opposite of what is being done around the world where high speed rail is being embraced."

Transport Action Canada is an Ottawa-based consumers' group that advocates sustainable transportation.


The leaked study proposes:

 - Only a few very high speed rail segments will be built and trains won't stop at inter-mediate points;
 - Excludes the path of incremental improvement of existing rail lines;
 - Southwestern Ontario is left out of the plan;
 - Discriminatory fares will be charged between Toronto and Montreal;
 - Excludes the possibility of air-rail connections;
 - Presumes that all existing VIA Rail service in the corridor will be eliminated once high-speed rail is in place - replaced by bus service;
- Incredibly excludes connections with the U.S.

These are the opposite of how high speed rail operates elsewhere around the world!


An excellent plan for achieving high speed rail was produced in 2002, called VIAFast.  This plan – ignored in the most recent study – should serve as a basis for continuing investment in our passenger rail infrastructure.

We are already off to a good start with the federal government's recent investment in VIA Rail allowing upgrades to the CN tracks used by VIA between Montreal and Toronto.  This incremental approach is being followed in the U.S. to move its passenger train system to fast trains traveling between 90 and 110mph (144 and 176kph).


What do Turkey, Morroco, South Korea, Taiwan, [the list here is very long] have that Canada doesn't have?  High speed trains.


Benefits.  High speed rail can bring a lot of good: passenger comfort and convenience, reduced travel time and hassle, significant reductions in fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and – less tangible but just as important – a re-energizing of collaboration and creativity that easier, more fluid transportation provides to a society.  

High-speed rail (HSR) a proven technology

HSR is a proven technology with efficiency, scalability, and a safety record that no other mode can match.  HSR is a significant challenge with revolutionary possibilities.  But not to take up the challenge leaves us vulnerable to the sheer wastefulness of our all-petroleum transport system, and it would constitute a surrender to ever-worsening congestion and security concerns.

Building a practical high speed train network.  What would a practicable high-speed rail project look like?  How could high-speed rail receive support from the widest coalition possible of stakeholders and passengers?  By designing a system around our needs and by planning an orderly transition for building and operating the new service.

High speed rail as part of a network.  HSR should not run in a vacuum.  It is part of a fully integrated air-rail-bus transport system.  That means planning for through ticketing between rail and air, and between rail and bus, right from the beginning of the project.  It suggests that incumbent operators should be invited to participate, which could include taking part ownership in a high-speed rail operating company, and certainly by integrating rail segments into air schedules through codesharing.  

These ideas are not far-fetched; they are standard practice in Europe and exist in limited form even in the U.S.  To make this integration practical, stations at or very near the major airports along the route must be built, and intercity bus terminals should consider locating in or adjacent to railway stations.

HSR should complement existing rail service to smaller communities.  On the contrary, it is an opportunity to connect more medium-sized cities into an attractive rail network, and to enhance bus connections. There are important network effects to be taken advantage of.  If a regional train or bus service gives access to every destination in the corridor through convenient connections and ticketing, that regional service becomes much more valuable – and viable.  Places such as Drummondville, Brockville, Belleville, and Kitchener must not lose their service, and cities such as Sherbrooke and Peterborough should have the opportunity to reconnect to the network.

The Québec–Windsor corridor is Canada's principal contribution to high speed rail. Transborder links – in particular, the much-discussed connection from Montréal to New York – are almost entirely the responsibility of U.S. state and federal governments.  If we are serious about our own corridor, which already carries several times the traffic volume of transborder links, we will provide an impetus for the U.S. to connect our cities to theirs.  In the meantime, negotiating customs preclearance for more Canadian stations and performing long-overdue basic maintenance on Canadian routes used by Amtrak are obvious and relatively inexpensive measures.

High speed rail is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that major transport projects should begin bearing fruit in the short term, rather than to emerge fully-formed after many years of waiting and enormous investments.  The same principles that guided the upgrading of the highway network in the 1960s and 70s – establish a master plan, then eliminate bottlenecks, and add new high-speed and electrified segments one by one as required and as resources allow – can be successfully used for rail upgrades, as they usually are elsewhere in the world.

Use consultation and collaboration. Use consultation and collaboration, rather than closed-door meetings and studies performed in isolation.  A successful high speed rail plan requires changing the travel habits of millions of people and will affect the economic future of dozens of communities.  Developing a plan that best serves the needs of these communities requires consultation; developing consensus to convince governments to go ahead with such major investments requires collaboration.  It is time for mayors throughout the corridor to meet and discuss their needs and concerns, and for citizens to be heard. Politicians who pretend they can magically solve problems by promising even more highway construction should be challenged.

In the end, the failure of Canada and the U.S. to adapt their formerly world-famous passenger rail networks to contemporary needs is a failure of imagination and engagement.  The current transport inefficiencies cannot be maintained indefinitely. Let us engage now with a sustainable, mobile future.