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Getting On Track With High Speed Rail

With a perfect safety record, projected job creation of 1,750 jobs per year over 25 years, and estimated emissions savings of over 2,700 tonnes of CO2 per year in the U.S., it’s hard to see why a country as vast as Canada hasn’t started building high-speed rail.

High-speed rail (HSR) reaches speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour and has been operating in France for almost 30 years and in Japan for 46.

Our two prime corridors for true HSR are Calgary-Edmonton and Windsor-Quebec City, where travel times would be cut in half.

Countries around the world are embracing HSR. HSBC forecasts that the biggest beneficiary of stimulus money in 2010 will be the rail sector, which should receive $64 billion USD. China is also getting on board by building 7,000 kilometres of dedicated HSR routes.

Even our neighbours to the south realize its importance. In January, U.S. President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in grants for the country’s first national, high-speed intercity rail service—which is projected to create or save tens of thousands of jobs. And switching from an auto-dependent society to a multi-modal system that includes a greater role for passenger and high-speed trains is good for the environment. But when will Canada decide to get on track?

Two studies have been completed on the viability of a Calgary-Edmonton route in the last six years, and a private company, Alberta Rail Inc., is interested in operating the line. In 1985, passenger service came to an end after 94 years, but recent public opinion polls in the province strongly support the development of HSR.

For the Windsor-Quebec City route, there have been about 12 studies done in the last three decades. All these studies supported the implementation of HSR in this corridor. Currently, the City of Quebec and the Chamber of Commerce have supported a study by the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français (SNCF)—French National Railways—on the possibilities of HSR between Ontario and Quebec.

This is being done at the same time that the 1995 joint Federal/Ontario/Quebec government High Speed Rail Project study is being updated. Both these studies are supposed to be completed by now.

While there have been many studies, no action has been taken to date.

Kinder to the earth

HSR is a big part of reducing our impact on the planet. Lower greenhouse gas emissions, less oil dependence, and less energy consumption can all be achieved through switching to greater train use. The 1995 Federal/Ontario/Quebec study states, “By the year 2025, annual emissions of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide related to inter-city travel within the [Windsor-Quebec City] corridor would drop by 24 per cent and 11 per cent [respectively] with the introduction of 300kph technology.”

The 2006 High-Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study by the U.S. Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology calculated that passengers would—assuming all proposed U.S. HSR lines were built—take 112 million HSR trips in the U.S. in 2025. This would result in 29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights. The U.S.’s total emissions savings: over 2,700 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Switching from air and auto travel will also reduce our dependence on oil. The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates its planned line will save 12.7 million barrels of oil per year by 2030, even with future improvements in auto fuel efficiency. This is in part because high-speed trains need one-third the energy of an airplane and one-fifth the energy of an automobile trip to carry a passenger one kilometre.

Safer for the public

Wouldn’t it be great if the evening news stopped featuring tragic stories about lost lives relating to an automobile accident?

Taking a modern high-speed train is far better than participating in the daily gridlock of Ontario’s treacherous Highway 401 or the dangers of driving in the winter on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton.

HSR reduces the amount of automobiles on the road, so there is a corresponding reduction in the number of auto-related accidents. According to the 1995 Federal/Ontario/Quebec study, 40 per cent of high-speed riders will be former auto users.

It has been 29 years since the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) made its maiden voyage from Paris to Lyon in 1981. France currently has 1,500 kilometres of high-speed railway lines and a fleet of 400 high-speed TGV trains, built by ALSTOM and owned by SNCF. The latter provides service with over 650 TGV trains every day and they have a 100 per cent safety record.

In Japan, where high-speed trains have been operating for over 46 years, they have never had a fatality.

More room for everyone

HSR lines require significantly less space to move a greater numbers of people than our present highway systems. The 2004 Van Horne Institute Study on the Calgary-Alberta high-speed potential line finds that 16,000 people can be moved using only 30 per cent of the space of a four-lane divided highway—which can only move 10,500 passengers.

This means less wetland, forest, and farmlands being wiped out as a result of infrastructure construction.

More jobs for everyone

True HSR will require significant infrastructure investment—the 1995 Federal/Ontario/Quebec study estimated $10 million, and the 2004 Van Horne study estimated as high as $3.5 billion. A high-speed track needs to be separated from roads and existing freight and passenger rail lines. On entering large cities, high-speed trains may share track with existing freight and passenger rail.

Not surprisingly, then, the 2004 Van Horne study found that up to 52,000 person-years of construction employment and $1 to 2 billion in associated employment income would result from the line’s construction. The 1995 Federal/Ontario/Quebec study projects the creation of 1,750 jobs per year over 25 years.

And constructing HSR can happen using all-Canadian jobs. Bombardier, a Canadian company that is an international leader in passenger rail equipment, already operates a passenger rail car manufacturing plant in Canada. They, among many other HSR manufacturers, are interested in bidding on HSR projects in Canada.

A better way to travel

High-speed trains run on time and are smooth riding. In Spain, if the high-speed train is more than five minutes late, passengers get a full refund. It’s hard to imagine that happening here.

This article was written while riding the 328 kilometres from Ottawa to Guelph, Ontario on the VIA Rail train. The trip took about six and a half hours—actually, more since the train was late—and it cost $200. Even though part of this VIA trip was first class, compared to a TGV first class HSR ticket from Paris to Strasbourg, France, which is 400 km long, it takes less than half the time at only three hours and costs less at $175.

The time to modernize Canada’s passenger rail system is now. Let’s get vocal and let politicians know our future must include HSR.

This article was written by Paul Langan, edited and posted in the Corporate Knights Magazine


  1. Great article!
    Other than writing to our MPs, any other way people can help?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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