high speed train A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © photowings \ Fotolia.com

When it comes to high-speed rail in Canada, there is only one statistic that matters: Canada is currently the only G8 country to not have a high-speed rail network. For a dominion founded on a transcontinental railway (an incredible feat of engineering) and featuring a famous passenger train on the new $10 bill, this statistic is perplexing. Few lines are even electrified, although Ontario’s GO Transit has committed to electrifying several of its most travelled corridors.

There has been one experimental high-speed train and a multitude of costly government studies. The TurboTrain, which ran during the 1970s, was propelled by an aircraft engine and could make the trip from Toronto to Montreal in 2 hours. It was plagued by logistical issues and since it was retired there has been no equivalent level of rail service (best summarized by the Walrus here). Instead, multiple studies have been commissioned by the federal and provincial governments to study the potential for high-speed rail in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, but with no progress to show for it. The seven studies published since 1990 are available on HighSpeedRail.ca, a national advocacy group. The most recent report came out in 2011 and was blasted by the media for its high price tag ($23 billion at the high end, $9 billion at the low) and minimal payback potential.

With the cost of building rail many observers would expect governments to shy away from spending during the current economic climate. However, Mr. Obama has made high-speed rail a key plank of his Presidency, proposing 13 lines across the US as part of the Democrat’s economic recovery plan. And then of course there’s China, which opened the world’s longest high-speed rail line (1900 kilometres) last December.

The main factors inhibiting high-speed in Canada/Ontario are low population and density. China and the US are two of the three most populous countries on Earth and so the cost is necessary. There are economic, safety and environmental reasons for Canada to invest in high-speed rail that have been covered extensively elsewhere. For Canada, business as usual is the likely trajectory, although it is important to consider that there is a significant opportunity cost.

According to population projections by the Ontario government, there will be almost 18 million people living in Ontario by 2036. If current transportation patterns are any indication, increasing the population by another 4.5 million people will put a severe strain on infrastructure. The result, despite the best intentions of the Provincial Policy Statement, Planning Act and the Greenbelt, will be continued sprawl, loss of farmland and habitat. The recently resurrected Pickering International Airport and unrestrained highway expansion will be extremely costly in both monetary and environmental terms. More of our province’s rural heritage and natural beauty will be paved over or become part of a flight path.

Much like the ongoing debates for infrastructure spending on items like urban transit systems, energy and utilities, the high-speed rail issue is contentious. President Obama has faced criticism over his rail plan, although politics south of the border are much more divisive in general. However, this is an important long-term issue and is ultimately tied in to the kind of society we wish to live in. Will we see continued dependence on fossil fuels from the oil sands, the detrimental environmental impact of air travel, urban sprawl and more cars, or can we push toward sustainability? 

For now, we’ll have to keep waiting while the studies continue to sit on a government shelf. 

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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