Fraser Forum

Going off the rails—does Ontario really need a high-speed train?

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Ontario is at it again. Promoting a vision of large-scale public spending to meet a future that may or may not be ready for it.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced a promise to build a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Windsor—again. Indeed, this project has been announced several times over the last few years; in 2014 just before the provincial election, in the fall of 2015 and now again as a follow up to the 2017 spring budget, which also announced it.

It’s not going to be cheap or quick. A report commissioned for the provincial government estimated it would cost about $21 billion to build the Toronto to Windsor line with construction to be completed by 2031.

Needless to say, given the history of Canadian infrastructure projects, one expects that both the cost and the time required for completion will increase dramatically assuming the project is ever started. After all, there has been talk and study of a high-speed passenger train along the Quebec City to Windsor corridor for decades and nothing has happened yet.

There are a number of challenges to building the high-speed rail line. First, is there actually a market for a high-speed train?

The Toronto to Windsor corridor has about seven million people but they’re already quite well served by a variety of travel options. There’s the provincial highway network anchored by the 401. There’s the existing Via Rail service from Toronto to Waterloo/Kitchener, London and Windsor. Private bus options, and of course GO Transit in the immediate GTA area. As well, you can fly from Windsor or London to Toronto. 

While there are issues of price and congestion in these existing travel options, what will be the value added of a high-speed train line?

It will likely not be much cheaper than current options—one report suggests a range of $15 to $20 for short hops to Union Station, all the way to $85 to $90 for Toronto to Windsor runs—not much different from current Via Rail or GO Transit pricing. And how much faster can it be? A high-speed train can only travel 300 kilometres per hour if it has the right rail line.

The fact remains that the chief obstacle to speedy train travel in Canada is that passenger trains must share the track with private freight trains, and freight takes precedence over passengers for rail companies because it’s more profitable. Charging passengers more to make passenger trains more profitable would likely not work because there are indeed so many competing options to train travel along the Toronto-Windsor corridor. And building a separate dedicated high-speed rail track that would be completely independent of the rail companies would greatly add to the multi-billion dollar price tag.

So, what’s going to happen?

There will be another study. Indeed, there have already been many. Afterwards, if Ontario taxpayers are lucky, the idea will die a quiet death right after the next provincial election. If we are unlucky, the provincial government will sink billions of dollars into a high-speed rail line that will be anything but fast.

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