By Mark Douglas Wessel

Question. Which G7 countries do NOT have a high-speed rail line?

If you answered Canada, you are correct. Japan opened the world’s first high speed rail line between Tokyo and Osaka in time for the 1964 Olympics. Since then, other members of this elite group—Italy, France, Great Britain, and Germany have constructed their own high-speed lines. Meanwhile here in Canada, we’ve been remarkably good at studying the feasibility of high-speed rail going as far back as the 1970s but have yet to build anything, other than the expectation that perhaps some day faster travel by train will happen.

As for the U.S. they’re in a bit of a grey area. The Amtrak Acela Express, which operates in the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. has a top speed of 240 km/hour—10 km/hour short of the internationally recognized baseline of 250 km/hour for high-speed lines.

Last fall both countries—Canada and the U.S. made major announcements tied to joining the proverbial G7 high speed rail club in coming years. In October, Minister of Transport Pablo Roderiguez announced the launch of the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the VIA High Frequency Rail (HFR) initiative, describing it as the country’s largest infrastructure project in not just years, but generations. A project involving the creation of mostly electrified, dedicated tracks over a 1,000-kilometre stretch between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City that could eventually run west to Windsor as well.

This was followed in early December by an announcement by the Biden administration of over US$8 billion in funding for rail infrastructure, including US$3 billion for the Brightline West high-speed rail project running from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Fundamental differences between the two announcements included the fact that the U.S. one was tied to approved funding for a rail line that could open in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, whereas the Canadian one lacked any reference to funding; rather it was proclaiming a desire to move the project along toward an eventual funding decision by welcoming proposals from the private sector.

Yet another difference is that Brightline will boast a top speed of 300 km/hour whereas if Canada’s HFR comes to fruition, current projections are a maximum initial speed of 200 km/hour. In other words, not a high-speed rail line based on international standards, but one which as the HFR website shares “will run on mostly dedicated tracks at higher frequencies, higher speeds and with greater reliability.”

Navigating public response to the HFR line

As with any major infrastructure project involving billions of dollars of public financing, Canada’s HFR project has come under the scrutiny of everyone from concerned citizens to members of parliament, to the media and special interest groups. And viewpoints ranging from those convinced it’s high time this country began to catch up to other advanced economies when it comes to public transit—to supporters of a better railway system sans private partner—to parties convinced our tax dollars would be better spent elsewhere.

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In a recent interview with ReNew Canada, Graeme Hamphshire, HFR’s Project Director and designated lead on the procurement process weighed in on some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

“There’s a very different view, as you know, towards public transport in North America compared to other parts of the world. And (while) the railway built Canada… that was a long time ago,” says Hampshire, who has helped to oversee high speed rail projects in Europe and the U.S. “We’ve now moved into an environment where road dominates, and private transport dominates.” An observation underscored by a recent BBC article on “the surprising truth about getting the public on board (whether in North America or Europe) with cutting car use,” which highlights the growing perception from some right-wing factions that “a war against drivers” is underway.

A viewpoint that belies the fact that for decades here in North America, funding for highways has taken precedent over railways. As a consequence, Hampshire observes that in this country “the train takes ages and even in eastern Canada, if you want to get around… I think it’s (only) six trains a day between Toronto and Montreal,” over a distance of about 540 kilometres.

In comparison, the train running a comparable stretch between London to Edinburgh “runs at least every half an hour, sometimes more. So, there’s just this culture of using public transport that we need to encourage in Canada,” he observes.

With over 1,000 kms of new passenger rail service planned between major city-centres, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, the HFR project is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Canada’s history. (VIA Rail Canada)


The road/rail tug of war

Aaron Wudrick with the national think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute says he “would love a world where you don’t have to own a car (but) we need to separate what we’d like the world to be like from what the reality is in places like North America where there is a very strong cultural attachment to not just cars per se… but this idea of freedom and going anywhere I want quickly.”

Wudrick, who is director of the institute’s domestic program recently wrote an article for the National Post with the headline “No Canada Doesn’t Need Bullet Trains.” Apart from writing matter-of-factly about Canada’s love for cars, he questioned the positive environmental impact the HFR will have as part of the country’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. “Simply put, rail can only really rack up big emissions reductions if it induces widespread, as opposed to marginal, changes in aggregate travel behaviour,” he observed. “Meanwhile, dedicating tens of billions to rail infrastructure would be misallocating scarce resources away from other projects or initiatives that could get better emissions-reduction bang for the buck.”

Building on that thought process, Wudrick told ReNew Canada “I do think there are arguments for improved transit… especially in large cities… but sometimes I think the discussion should be more about buses than trains.” Or other municipal transit services such as Ottawa’s light rail system, which appeals to those who “don’t want to pollute with a car, pay for gas or worry about safety and traffic jams.”

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Further to Wudrick’s observation, the lack of funding for municipal transit services has become a rallying point for commuters in cities across the country. So much so that last summer in response to those concerns, Infrastructure Canada announced plans to invest $3 billion per year towards upgrading services. However, that funding won’t commence until 2026-27.

Not taking away from the importance of improving urban transit within cities, the argument in favour of the HFR is more about moving people between cities and in Hampshire’s words, creating “decent transport links to encourage frictionless trade (and) frictionless movement, which is a much more environmentally friendly mode of transport,” not only pertaining to cars, but air travel.

Adding up the benefits of HFR

Based on current StatCan projections, Canada’s population will increase from over 40 million to up to 68 million by 2068 (high growth scenario) and reflecting that growth, a parallel stat offered by HFR projects future annual ridership for this transit service of 17 million by 2059.

With those kinds of numbers, if we truly care about climate change and reducing our carbon footprint, Hampshire opines that “it is far better and more efficient to have people on a train,” instead of simply building more roads or airports.

And if HFR comes to fruition after years of debate and delays, Hampshire notes that with this being “one of the biggest railway projects in the world… there will be significant opportunities for Canadian firms. The construction will create jobs… operation of the railway will create jobs… and (HFR) will create more jobs in the broader economy.”

Initially, Hampshire says “there will be opportunities for Canadian firms in terms of the design work and preparation of ideas. A lot of site investigation for instance is going to be needed… (and) there’s a lot of environmental studies that are going to be needed within the next couple of years.” Followed by construction tied to the current procurement process.

As shared on Transport Canada’s website, the three consortia that were invited to participate in the Request for Proposal are: Cadence (CDPQ Infra, AtkinsRéalis, Systra Canada, Keolis Canada); Intercity Rail Developers (Intercity Development Partners, Kilmer Transportation, First Rail Holdings, Jacobs, Hatch, CIMA+, First Group, RATP Dev Canada, Renfe Operadora); and QConnexiON Rail Partners (Fengate, John Laing, Bechtel, WSP Canada, Deutsche Bahn).

So, some Canadian representation, but also a heavy concentration of foreign players, which doesn’t sit well with the likes of Terence Johnson, president of Transport Action Canada, a non-profit organization which as their website conveys, promotes sustainable transport through advocacy and education.

Presenting to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities last fall, Johnson observed that “the long-awaited start of procurement (for HFR) should have been cause for celebration. Instead, morale at VIA Rail took an absolute body blow.”

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Johnson was referencing the fact that RFP format is tied to a P3 model that encompasses not only the design and construction of the HFR line, but also transfers long-term management from VIA to a private operator. “So, we’re worried about the future viability of the rest of VIA Rail’s network—its long distance and remote services—if the government goes ahead with its plan to hand its busy Quebec-Windsor corridor over to a private sector partner,” Johnson observes.

Also convinced the P3 model could significantly increase the final cost of the HFR, Johnson poses the question “why not just give VIA the tools and resources to deliver? The backing of their home governments—cash and regulatory—is what makes European railways like Renfe or Deutsche Bahn successful [so]we could just choose to make VIA successful rather than paying some other country’s railway a premium.”

Proactively responding to the perception that public expenditures for a major project such as this could get out of hand, the FAQ’s page of HFR’s website shares that “the Government of Canada is implementing a robust, cost-management strategy for High Frequency Rail… to manage costs and scope changes as well as specific measures at every phase of the project.”

Commenting on how the proscribed model will impact on VIA’s future, Hampshire says “the overall ownership of the project, the ownership of the infrastructure, the trains… will be with HRF. So, at a high level it’s still in public hands.” And as for the logic behind transferring management of corridor operations to a private partner, he says it comes down to deciding on a shared revenue risk model.

“There’s no right answer,” when it comes down to deciding whether public transport is best provided by the public or private sector Hampshire observes. And in the case of Canada’s HFR “we’re going to do it by… involving a private sector partner to help design the product, take the relevant revenue risk and therefore take some of the operation risk as well.”

To make all this work from a financial standpoint once the HFR is up and running he says, “one of the project objectives is not to increase revenue… but to increase ridership.” Which takes us back to arguably the biggest opportunity and obstacle that lies ahead for the VIA HFR initiative… whether the timing is such that Canadians are ready to drive and fly less and in Hampshire’s ideal world “embrace a culture of using public transport.”

Mark Douglas Wessel is an urban journalist and public speaker. His work includes writing a regular Green Living column for Postmedia.

[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: Starting in 2022, VIA Rail began deployment of a new generation of trains on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, as part of its Fleet Replacement Program. (Getty Images)


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