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Public Works: A Bullet Train for Toronto

With Toronto's highways and airports increasingly gridlocked, is it time to take a serious look at high-speed rail?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, governance, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}kmaraj{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Flying from Toronto to Montreal always feels like more trouble than it’s worth. Traffic jams, line-ups, security, steely-eyed flight wardens whinging about seatbelts and how your Facebook updating is crashing the plane, and the ever-present sense of imminent fiery catastrophe that’s only natural at 30,000 feet. But what if there were a way to get to downtown Montreal in only an hour and a half without leaving the ground?

Enter high-speed rail.

In November of last year,the federal government, working with the governments of Ontario and Quebec, updated a 1995 report examining the viability of a high-speed rail line for the Windsor to Quebec City corridor.

The study considered two scenarios: a 200 kilometre per hour diesel traction option for $18.9 billion, and a 300 kilometre per hour train using electric traction at $21 billion. It concluded that while a line along the whole corridor would be a money loser, high-speed rail between Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa would provide a net economic benefit to the entire country. (The truncated line is estimated to cost $9.1 billion or $11 billion for diesel or electric, respectively.)

High-speed trains are common in other developed nations; in fact, Canada is the only G8 country without one. If you’ve traveled in Europe or Asia, there’s a good chance you’ve ridden the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), German ICE (Inter-City Express), or the Japanese Shinkansen (literally “New Trunk Line”, colloquially the Bullet Train). China is rapidly building out an extensive network, and planning is underway in numerous countries from Indonesia to Mexico.

Even the United States, where any form of transport that doesn’t guzzle hydrocarbons at one end and spew greenhouse gases out the other is considered dangerously liberal and homosexual, has high-speed trains on the busy Washington D.C. to Boston corridor, and new lines have been approved in California.

At one time Canadians didn’t have to suffer from bullet-train envy. Canadian National Railways launched the high speed TurboTrain in 1968, only four years after the introduction of the pioneering Japanese Shinkansen. While capable of travelling at over 200 kilometres per hour, the requirement to share tracks with (and give right of way to) CN freight trains ensured more modest speeds. Under those conditions, the Turbo clocked in at four hours for the Toronto-Montreal trip—barely faster than driving. The Turbo trundled languidly along until 1982, when VIA Rail finally put it out of its misery (the Walrus has an excellent account of this story).

There are good reasons to revive the idea, and to do it right this time. The government report noted above discusses the broad economic benefits of high-speed rail: populations can move around more efficiently, and passengers passing through railway stations stimulate business in surrounding areas.

But there are other advantages.

For starters, it’s green, especially the electric trains most commonly in service. A recent study from the University of California Berkeley found that high-speed rail is more fuel-efficient and produces less pollution per passenger than planes or cars, even accounting for future advances in those technologies.

Trains also have particular advantages over autos, as anyone who’s tried to play Super Tetris while driving can attest. An efficient system of fast trains would get people out of their cars, potentially saving us a lane or two on the 401.

And G-force inducing speeds notwithstanding, high-speed rail is statistically the safest form of transport around. While there have been crashes on high-speed lines, very few incidents have been deadly and none of those were speed-related. Japan’s bullet trains have carried over 9 billion passengers without a fatal accident.

None of this would be easy or cheap. High-speed rail is best suited for densely populated areas, which is why Windsor and London would likely get the cold shoulder in any build-out. For that matter, it might make more sense to link Toronto with New York or Chicago rather than Montreal and Ottawa.

The cost would have to include dedicated tracks, avoiding as much as possible built-up areas where the trains can’t operate at full speed (although it’s fun to speculate on an urban high-speed line: “Finch to Union in eight seconds!”).

And of course, there’s funding. With the city/province/country/planet in a state of perpetual fiscal crisis, finding a spare $11 billion or so won’t be easy. But if the case can be made—and it has—that dollars spent here will be saved elsewhere then it makes sense, notwithstanding the expected Fraser Institute harumphings.

Most likely, however, the report will be shelved and updated again in a decade or so, when it will again be determined that high-speed trains are a good idea. Which is too bad.


  • Anonymous



    • Testu

      Surprisingly prescient, no doubt. But the project will have to be approved and construction about to start before that crowd shows up.

      Thankfully we can rely on short-sighted austerity budgets to nip this one in the bud.

    • Jacob

      Public works projects like this used to be a source of pride for everyone.

      How did society become so selfish?

      • Testu

        Oddly enough, when the generation that came up with the phrase “Fuck You Got Mine” became the largest voting block.

        It’s okay though, their grand-kids and great-grand kids can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and build their own infrastructure with whatever resources are left.

        • Joe Blow VI

          People under the age of 35, those over entitled snot nose kids, in 20 years time, if that, will be paying through the teeth to rebuild or build out infrastructure that a certain generation’s parents built. While we will have known that this needed to be done for at least 30-40 years, 10-20 years down the road, it will be the ingrates who are devoting 99% of their tax dollars to keeping their parents or grand-parents alive who will be to blame.

      • stopitman

        Er, from my experiences (I’m 23), the vast majority of the people who don’t want to pay for public transit or even pay taxes are the Baby Boomers & their parents. It’s funny too, since it was the Boomers who mooched off of the system the hardest of any generation of Canadians…

        I’m just hoping all of the old people in power die off so something can get done, but it’ll probably still be the WASP lawyers, etc. who come into power not bothering to change anything and the majority of the population will help them stay with the subsidized roads, anti-tax BS that’s proven to not work in the US.

  • King of Toronto

    Toronto get an efficient mode of transportation? and loose our standing in the world of mediocrity?

    • Neville Ross

      Building a HSR system does not mean that a city is better than or just as good as others, or less mediocre; it just means that they have a high-speed way to be reached.

    • spoobnooble

      I wouldn’t mind losing our standing in the world of mediocrity. And it’s not that hard to start down that road. For instance: try learning the difference between “lose” and “loose”.

  • Anonymous

    11 billion over have many years?

  • OgtheDim

    “…avoiding as much as possible built-up areas where the trains can’t operate at full speed…” So complete new lines then over new routes…..that is not going to be cheap.

    • Testu

      No, not cheap. Building modern infrastructure rarely is. It’s an investment that will not only reduce costs, but could potentially begin to bring in revenue (as long as we avoid the mistake of sharing tracks with cargo).

      Of course the alternative is to allow the province’s transit infrastructure to become increasingly obsolete. But hey, it’s not like gas is going to get any more expensive, right?

      • bimjim

        “Arithmetic”, as Bill Clinton says. If they raise our taxes much more – including double-dipping, direct and indirect taxation is now well over 50%, remember – most people who pay taxes won’t be able to afford to use that special train. But the “fat” bankers and businessmen will, and they will also just write it off THEIR taxes – which means adding it back to OUR taxes again. As usual, one way or another we peons will be paying for a special perk for the wealthy.. So let them sit there for four hours – like us sweaty people will still have to..

        • Testu

          Amazing. I’m pretty cynical, but that takes the cake.

          Don’t build infrastructure because someone wealthy might benefit from it.

          How about we build it anyway. Because someone has to and if we don’t we’re all going to suffer the consequences.

          Seriously, the wealthy have the resources to insulate themselves from this stuff. They can afford to fly, they can pay higher prices for everything, they can avoid public transit and its related delays. The rest of us are the ones that have to deal with this crap on a daily basis. That’s why we’re the ones that need to push to get it built.

          • Neville Ross

            Most people like yourself are pretty cynical about the space program despite all of the benefits it’s brought mankind, so I wouldn’t really be quite smug.

            BTW, here’s what NASA’s done for us lately;

          • Testu

            What? Most people “like me” in what way?

            I’m a huge advocate of space exploration and development. Both for the knock-on technology development benefits and because I honestly believe that because we can do it, we should.

            To tie this back to the subject at hand, every generation of this technology/infrastructure we skip the more it will cost us to develop when we really need it. And we’ve needed this for at least a decade or more now.

          • Neville Ross

            Sorry about that. I just get tired of people supporting one type of project and being NIMBY/FYIGM (or HTPIMI [Helping The Poor Is More Important]) about others like the space program. FWIW, II support HSR projects, but for me, the main concern is what will power said trains; again, I’m sorry, but wind won’t cut it. The French know the answer to this one-we should be following their lead.

    • Anonymous

      The former CP line east of Peterborough would be a candidate, with some additional works (grade crossings would be out of the question for instance, probably some tunnelling and viaducting to reduce the most severe gradients). But then there may be howling from the lakefront communities between Oshawa and Brockville about being bypassed. But the point about high speed rail is point to point travel – if you’re stopping every 20 miles you’re doing it wrong because you never reach top speed!

  • Anonymous

    Nobody wants to pay for it (and let’s be fair, it would cost a lot more than $21B), and nobody wants it in their backyard. A shame too, because the benefits would be enormous (especially to future generations).

  • Steeplejack

    Electric? Hey, Great! Let’s build more nuclear plants…oh, wait, the fuel is radioactive and you could have a loss of coolant accident, and they’re expensive. I know! Thermal! Coal is cheap and….what?….too polluting?. Well, how about natural gas…? What? What is this ‘fracking’ you’re complaining about? All right, HYDRO-ELECTRIC, can’t go wrong with…mercury levels raising because of leaching? Most suitable rivers in the province already dammed anyway? Disruption of natural environment?….Well, how about wind! Now THERE’S a sure fire winner! No nukes, no hydrocarbons, no damming of….wait, WHAT? Nobody wants them in rural Ontario, which is where they would have to go to get that kind of power? And what? Oh, yes…..only works when there is wind…Solar? How about….doesn’t work at night. In winter that could be a problem. And HOW MUCH? REALLY? For a solar panel???
    Just throwing it out there……

    • Testu

      Yup. This is why we stopped building infrastructure in the 70′s. Everything since then has been an uphill battle against the NIMBY and FYGM horde. We don’t want it here and we sure as hell don’t want to pay for it.

    • Neville Ross

      Hey, you’ll get no argument from me on all of those points; in fact, I just bought them up in my response.

  • Local Paul

    “any form of transport that doesn’t guzzle hydrocarbons at one end and
    spew greenhouse gases out the other is considered dangerously liberal
    and homosexual”


    • Joe Blow VI

      yes, that is a good line

  • Paul Kishimoto

    For road and air travel, the public costs are:
    1. Concrete.
    2. There is no #2.

    Everything else (vehicles, fuel, time wasted in congestion) is borne privately by users or service providers.

    Before making mindless, cynical remarks about cost, everyone, please come up with a credible estimate of the *total* current cost of passenger transport between Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal in private cars, buses and aircraft. Unless Canada is bizarrely different from the rest of the world, this total will be higher than any number in the study.

    That the line bears an ~$11b price tag is a political inconvenience or co-ordination problem, not an economic or financial flaw.

    If you like, think by analogy to health care: in Canada, per capita *government* spending on health care is (I believe) higher than in the U.S.; but *total* U.S. health care spending as a fraction of GDP is much higher than in Canada. If we can’t build this line, maybe we should stop laughing at their problems in that regard.

  • Neville Ross

    The best type of train (and it’s made in Canada!) that could be used is Bombardier’s JetTrain ( but most Canadians won’t even consider it at all; plus, even if VIA Rail were to buy at least 40 of 50 train sets, the uproar from environmentalists about what powers the JetTrain would make the protests staged by the Clean Train Coalition look like a picnic.Electric trains would most likely be considered, but because of the power needed to run them, will require a ton of nuclear reactors to be built, just like in France (of course, the environmentalists will bitch about that too.)

    • Anonymous

      There’s a reason turbine trains aren’t running in the rest of the world, not just Canada. And that was before persistent levels of $100/bbl for oil.

  • kid mecha

    In a perfect Canada, Toronto has a more efficient subway system, there`s a bullet train from Montreal, to Toronto and Vancouver, and Harper isn`t PM. Then I woke up.

  • Anonymous

    Bear in mind – the Northeast Corridor in the US is about 900km from Richmond VA to Boston MA, passing through Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, Providence and Boston. Quebec City to London (not even Windsor) gets you Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto (via Highway 7 so no Kingston/Brockville/Belleville), Aldershot.
    At present, there are gaps up to 4 hours between trains from (for example) London to Toronto. Since Toronto-New York was mentioned, it can take 2 hours for the current Amtrak service to clear customs at Niagara. Much of the track between Montreal and Ottawa and Ottawa and Brockville is single track. There is no partnership between QC, ON and VIA despite receiving the lion’s share of VIA service and in ON’s case where GO Transit has started to horn in on VIA markets. Any move toward high speed rail will have bus and air lobbyists banging on the doors of Toronto Sun, National Post and Globe and Mail columnists. Please wake me when people stop kidding themselves.
    There’s a lot of romanticism about VIA’s link with the Canadian, with the Churchill service, with the train to Halifax and to fishing stops in northwest Quebec and White River ON, but it’s hard to run a tourist service, a political chew toy and a commercial intercity railway at the same time. It may be that yielding to the blandishments of Rocky Mountaineer and privatising the transcontinental trains is the only way VIA can focus on delivering in the relatively small zone which has half or more of this country’s population.

  • Arnon

    LOL .. funny that the Fraser Inst. is against high speed rail … till you look at who’s funding them … read here:

  • Anonymous

    Will never happen. Canada is a cheap, poor country that has never in its history spent appropriate amounts on infrastructure of any kind. Keep dreaming.

    • Anonymous

      Canada often talks about things like this but rarely gets them done.