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Will Ontarians Ever Get High-Speed Rail?

Toronto Star Election Blog - Paul Langan

The traditional definition of high-speed rail (HSR) is passenger trains that go over 200 km/h. This definition, although a lofty one for current VIA Rail trains, is conservative. In other countries, HSR trains routinely travel at speeds of 250 to 350 km/h. Most, but not all, rail systems have routes that are dedicated to HSR. If we were to build a Windsor-Quebec City high-speed route, it could travel near the existing routes.

It is no secret that Premier Dalton McGuinty and the current provincial Liberal government brought GO Transit back from the brink of extinction after the Mike Harris Tories tried to download it to municipal governments. The McGuinty government’s investment in GO Transit has been commendable. But what can the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario do to make modern passenger rail a reality?

Consider these grim facts:

- Canada is the only G8 country without HSR service.

- Canada already had high-speed trains. In 1966, Canadian National (CN) unveiled its passenger train of the future: the Turbo train. Unfortunately, CN made one major error – it did not test the Turbo thoroughly in the Canadian winter climate. This resulted in a series of delays and breakdowns over the years. By the time the Turbo trains were running smoothly in the early 1980s, VIA Rail ordered them all scrapped. Regardless, the CN Turbo passenger train was capable of speeds of over 200 km/h on the Toronto- Montreal route. That was 40 years ago. Current VIA Rail trains take 45 minutes longer to make the trip from Toronto to Montreal.

- Transport Canada released an urban traffic congestion report, The Cost of Urban Congestion in Canada, which found that recurrent congestion was costing Canadians between $2.3 and $3.7 billion annually. According to the report, these costs are created by the extra time that passengers lose, and the extra fuel consumed.

- There is a need for humans to reduce their energy consumption, and HSR is part of the solution. The 1995 joint Federal/Ontario/Quebec government High Speed Rail Study states: “By the year 2025, annual energy consumption in the corridor associated with the conventional multi-mode scenario would be reduced by 20 per cent in the case of 300 km/h HSR.

- Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment and human health. The Ontario Medical Association states that air pollution costs Ontarians over $1 billion per year in hospitalizations, emergency-room visits, and premature deaths.

- Atmospheric emissions contributing to the greenhouse-gas effect would be reduced by the introduction of HSR. According to the 1995 study mentioned above, “By the year 2025, annual emissions of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide related to inter-city travel within the corridor would drop by 24 per cent and 11 per cent with the introduction of 300 km/h technology.” If you add in the stress involved with driving, and the true costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle, it is easy to provide a rationale to modernize Canada’s passenger rail system.

- Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent investment in VIA Rail will be used to triple track sections of the Toronto-Montreal route, to improve travel times and on-time performance. When this is completed, the resulting schedule improvements will only bring the train times to what they were in 1975.

It could get even worse. Under Tim Hudak, the Ontario Tories have released their election platform titled Changebook, which doesn’t mention the words passenger rail or HSR at all. It does include statements like, “We will stop the war on the car.” Since the Canadian federal government and the provincial governments have spent $88 billion on road building and maintenance in the last 10 years, what war is he talking about?

The Ontario NDP’s Plan For Affordable Change only has one sentence about transit infrastructure. Like its federal counterpart, the NDP remains silent on modern passenger rail renewal in Canada. It is unfortunate that the NDP chose to remain out of touch on this subject.

But there is some hope. Public opinion polls in Canada over the last decade have repeatedly shown that Canadians support a modern high-speed passenger rail system.

Premiers McGuinty and Charest, and the mayors of the cities along the Ontario-Quebec HSR route, are champions of the idea. But the premiers cannot do it alone. The public must speak up and say to its elected members of federal and provincial Parliament, “Enough is enough.” The tragic state of passenger rail service in Canada must be addressed.

The premier, in his or her first week of office, must call Prime Minister Harper and state that they should work together to make the development of modern passenger rail service between Ontario and Quebec a reality.