Can high-frequency rail help growing transport woes in Ontario and Quebec? – National

As Canada’s population continues to grow, high-frequency rail could play an important role in helping ease transportation woes among some of the country’s most populous areas and offset some reductions in service from airlines, experts say.

On Wednesday, WestJet said in a statement that it would be discontinuing service between Toronto and Montreal until April 2024, and a CN Rail outage hit VIA and commuter trains across Ontario earlier in the week.

Those announcements might have short-term implications, but they highlight regional transportation problems that are destined to become more pronounced in the near future.

“When you’re adding 100,000 people to the (Greater Toronto Area) every year, you’re adding roughly 60,000 cars. All I can tell you is 10 years from now, it’s going to be much worse,” said James McKellar, professor emeritus of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

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“We’re going to have to look at other solutions.”

Rising gas prices, limited flight options and anxieties around the future of climate change have led to debates around what is the most efficient way for Canadians to get around.

In Canada, the federal government is banking on a 1,000 km high-frequency rail link between Quebec City and Windsor, which would stretch between Canada’s two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal, and help address the transportation woes of Canada’s most densely populated corridor.

The high-frequency rail line would run from Quebec City, and pass through Trois-Rivieres, Montreal, Ottawa, Peterborough, and Toronto. The government says high-frequency rail would run on tracks limited to passenger traffic, and would therefore offer travellers more trains to choose from and greater reliability. When connected with Ontario’s GO Train network and other passenger services between Toronto and Windsor, this rail corridor could serve nearly half of Canada’s population.

In July this year, then-transport minister Omar Alghabra said the race to build the project was now down to three private consortiums. One of them will be picked as the private developer partner, which will work collaboratively with VIA Rail on the line.

A Transport Canada spokesperson on Thursday told Global News that the next stage is the Request for Proposals or “RFP” process, under which each of the three final contenders will be asked to submit their respective proposals.

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The proposal will include a technically and commercially feasible solution, a business plan and a management plan for the co-development, construction and operations phases of the project, with the goal of having service on the line begin in the mid-2030s.

A map of the Toronto-Quebec City High-Frequency Rail line.

But the big question before experts is whether Canada should opt for a high-speed rail link, or a dedicated high-frequency train.

There are other countries where leaders have turned away from rail as a transportation solution. For example, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently said his government is cancelling a proposed 530-kilometre high-speed rail link between London and Manchester, with Sunak explaining he wanted to end the “war on motorists.”

While Alghabra insisted in the past that the best way to serve the Toronto-Quebec City travel corridor is by building a high-frequency train, there have been calls from politicians in Quebec to build a high-speed rail system instead.

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In July, Alghabra also said the government was looking for a private sector partner that could deliver a high-speed and high-frequency project, saying the two were not “mutually exclusive.”

In McKellar’s view, a high-frequency rail corridor makes more sense for Canada’s current context.

He said users would value the reliability more than speed.

“It would be quite a breakthrough in Canada to have a train that departs and arrives on time. In Japan, it’s down to the second. And certainly in Europe, you can depend on it. Frequency, reliability and comfort would, in my mind, rate above high speed,” he said.

Matthias Sweet, associate professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, said one of the biggest issues with a high-speed rail project would be the cost.

“Any proposals now for high-speed rail would be a massive infrastructure project,” he said, whereas building high-frequency would be “more of an operational issue.”

Knowing that a long-distance train is coming every 20 minutes or half an hour would increase trust in railway as a reliable means of transportation, he said.

“High-frequency services are going to be much more attractive for somebody that is interested in reliability. High-speed services imply they’re not as high in frequency. You’re going to have one or two options during peak periods, perhaps, that are going to get you there very fast,” he said.

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“But if you miss those options, you’re stuck with a much more inferior service that happens much later.”

Click to play video: 'Political push for high-speed train between Quebec and Ontario'

Political push for high-speed train between Quebec and Ontario


High-speed trains are operating around the world, such as the Shinkasen in Japan and the Maglev trains in China. Britain’s HS2 line, which Sunak said he was cancelling earlier this week, is an extension of the already operational HS1, which connects London and Birmingham.

The closest high-speed rail to Ontario and Quebec is the Acela train in the U.S. Amtrak’s flagship train in the Northeast corridor runs a 735 km route from Boston, Mass., to Washington, D.C., with a top speed of 240 kilometres per hour.

Like the Toronto-Quebec City corridor, the Acela connects a high-density corridor with cities like New Haven, New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington.

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Click to play video: 'Quebec transport minister supports high-speed train linking Quebec City to Toronto'

Quebec transport minister supports high-speed train linking Quebec City to Toronto

But Sweet said this also points to obstacles for high-speed rail in Canada, citing the challenges that line encountered in building on hilly and mountainous terrain.

But regardless of whether Canada builds a high-frequency or high-speed project, experts agree that any such project cannot be a success without building robust public transit infrastructure in the cities that these trains would connect.

Sweet suggested integrating and syncing timetables of regional rail networks, such as the Toronto-area’s GO Train and the Union-Pearson Express, with VIA Rail schedules. McKellar said trains can only be a viable alternative to driving and flying if it’s easy to get to the stations.

“If it takes you 45 or 50 minutes to get from your house to the station, it doesn’t make much sense then to spend all this money (on train travel),” he said.

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Click to play video: 'High-frequency rail service between Quebec City and Toronto still years away'

High-frequency rail service between Quebec City and Toronto still years away

Environmental groups say transportation alternatives to road and air travel are also needed desperately as Canada is facing a climate crisis.

“When you look at Canada’s emissions profile, we see that a quarter of national emissions are coming from the transportation sector,” said Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.

“The question here is not how people are going to make individual sacrifices to reduce the emissions. The question is how is the Canadian government providing infrastructure for providing programs that make those choices that are more friendly to the climate?”

She added more rail options have other upsides as well.

“Just the possibility of taking a train, connecting to WiFi, having a drink and watching the beautiful scenery instead of being stuck in a queue of endless vehicles with polluting particles in the air from combustion is a much more pleasant future.”

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