Canada charts path for high-speed trains, but obstacles loom

Canada charts path for high-speed trains, but obstacles loom
Canada charts path for high-speed trains, but obstacles loom
Open this photo in gallery:

Commuters pass by a map of VIA Rail’s transit lines at Union Station in Toronto on May 5.Sammy Kogan/The Globe and Mail

Via Rail Train 62 pulled out of Toronto’s Union Station at 8:32 am, rolling east through the sprawl and Lake Ontario’s north shore on the way to Montreal. Its first three stops were on time, but by Belleville, Ont., two hours into the five-hour-and-10-minute journey, Train 62 was a half-hour late.

The journey was delayed by problems with the signals on the tracks, which, like most of those used by Via, are owned by Canadian National Railway Co. CNR-T

Train 62 and more than seven others that day in early April were moved onto side tracks that have lower speed limits, said Karl Helou, a spokesperson for Canada’s national passenger railway. “It is unfortunately not uncommon for such signaling issues to arise on railway infrastructure that is not owned by Via Rail,” Mr. Helou said.

On this day, a spring snowstorm put the signals on the fritz. Other days, Via’s passenger trains must move over to let a freight train pass. CN owns most of the tracks Via travels in Ontario and elsewhere, and has priority as the host railway. This hampers Via’s chances of meeting its schedule and weighs down Via’s on-time performance. Just 59 per cent of Via’s trains were on time in 2023, a score that inconveniences passengers and erodes trust in the government-owned rail service.

Martin Imbeau has a solution: passenger trains that mostly run on their own electric tracks in the corridor between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, routes that account for 96 per cent of Via’s 4.1 million passengers a year. This, says the chief executive officer of Crown corporation Via HFR (High Frequency Rail), will let the trains run faster and more often, supporting growth in a swath of the country with much of the population and economic activity.

“Via Rail is doing a fantastic job, but they don’t own the tracks,” Mr. Imbleau says. “And passenger trains should not be slowing down the commodity trains either in that corridor because that would be detrimental to the economy. So having dedicated passenger tracks is the way to go. That’s how it’s done in basically everywhere in the world except [in Canada].”

The government formed Via HFR in 2022 as an independent subsidiary of Via Rail, and gave it the mandate to develop and implement high-frequency passenger rail service in the 1,000-kilometer corridor.

The government would retain ownership of the land and infrastructure, but the private sector would be the operator and part owner.

Via HFR asked each of three competing groups to provide two proposals each: one that would run trains at 200 kilometers an hour; and a second project in which the trains are much faster. This is in line with the high-speed trains in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, but is far more costly.

On top of costs – estimated at several billion dollars for either project – hurdles include the task of buying the railway’s rights-of-way, and electrifying the system.

“We need this because we need to increase the productivity. We need this because the population is growing and we need this because it’s a corridor with 60 per cent of the population and 40 per cent of the GDP,” Mr. Imbleau said.

But it won’t happen soon, and it will cost billions. Nor is it a new notion – various plans for a faster passenger rail service have been tossed round for decades – but it’s one that is set to mark key deadlines. Proposals from three private consortiums to build and run the system are due in the summer, and in the fall the government will select a group with which to work.

Each consortium includes several companies, Canadian and foreign, including CDPQ Infra, AtkinsRéalis, Bechtel Corp. and Kilmer Group.

High-speed rail – or high frequency in its latest incarnation – has been a dream of Canadian governments for decades. Shortening the traveling time between cities would reduce the need for carbon-belching cars and planes, and allow business people and tourists to speed to their destinations in comfort and without the hassles of airport waits or road congestion.

Via Rail ridership jumped last year, but fell short of 2019 levels as earnings losses mount

For Jacques Roy, a professor at HEC Montreal, Via HFR’s ambitions seem familiar. Teacher. Roy studied the idea in 1994-95 on behalf of the Quebec government, which was evaluating a similar proposal from the Chrétien government. Then, as now, a high-speed and a more traditional passenger train were under consideration.

“Everybody was really excited about this project, but the business case was not really positive – not enough users,” Prof. Roy said in an interview.

Despite enthusiasm for the project, it never happened, in part because of the price tag of as much as $18-billion. there Although was interest from business travelers, people using the train for leisure were harder to attract, he said, especially at the elevated fares the system would require.

Densely populated Europe is better suited than Canada to higher-speed trains. That’s because the convenience of quick rail travel spurs people to take the train, fostering a market called induced travel.

“In Europe, they can justify high-speed trains, but a lot of the ridership comes from what we call induced traffic, that is, people who would not travel otherwise,” Prof. Roy said. “But because you have high-speed trains they are more inclined to visit friends and relatives. And that was fine with Paris to Lyon, but I was never convinced that you will get that much induced traffic between Montreal and Toronto.”

Barry Prentice, a transportation professor at the University of Manitoba, says the prevalence of car ownership has suppressed demand for passenger trains, at the consumer and government levels. However, road congestion, a lack of intercity buses, environmental concerns and ever-lengthening predeparture times at airports all stack up in favor of faster passenger rail services. This is especially true if the trains could link city centers, and could travel between Montreal and Toronto in three or four hours, he said.

“Part of the benefit of the train is simply that: downtown to downtown,” Prof. Prentice said. “Speed ​​matters, and if you don’t have a service that is fast enough then it’s always a loser versus the competition, which is a car or a plane.”

He said he recently traveled on Mexico’s Tren Maya, a new railway that traverses the Yucatan Peninsula on the country’s southeastern tip at speeds of up to 160 kilometers an hour. The system, partly completed and built for the government by a consortium that includes Bombardier Inc. BBD-BT and Alstom SA, has seen its budget balloon to about US$20-billion for 1,500 kilometers.

For Mr. Imbleau, it is too soon to talk about budgets. Much of that will depend on the project’s ambitions – speeds of 200 km/h or as much as 300 km/h. Either target will require assembling large swaths of land, including a new route that runs through Peterborough, Ont., on the way to Ottawa. But either plan will be faster than the current service, Mr. Imbleau says, by reducing the delays, stops and reliability issues that plague the current system. This rapidity will be the draw, he says. He tosses out potential travel times between Toronto and Montreal of three or 3½ hours – or less – compared with 5½ these days.

“That really changes the behavior of how people commute in that corridor,” he says. “We can’t simply add highways and more cars because it doesn’t last, and then you get stuck in congestion anyway.”



PREV Morocco and China sign a 2024-2028 cultural cooperation program
NEXT They poached at night in the Lot: one received a prison sentence, the other a suspended sentence