High-speed Rail For Whom?

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High-speed Rail For Whom?

If we build a new rail line in southern Ontario, it won't pay for itself.

A few weeks ago, the Ontario government announced the environmental assessment for the introduction of a high-speed rail network. I am in favour of the province investing in improvements to regional transit, as I have previously written. I want to be happy about this announcement. I’m not.

Several people have raised concerns about the proposal, and I recommend reading John Michael McGrath and Sean Marshall on this. You can also read the whole plan, which was completed in December and released last month. This plan has been floating around for a while; there have been critiques going back to at least 2015.

For the moment, instead of talking about the viability of this particular plan, I want to talk about how it fits with what I find to be a disturbing trend in transportation planning. I worry that our concept of “public” has eroded to the point that we don’t even notice that the infrastructure we build with public money isn’t so public after all.

To start with the screamingly obvious, the greatest appeal about high-speed rail is its gift of time.

But that time is all about perception. It’s about the idea of saving time—specifically, of not wasting time. HSR gives an actual advantage of a shorter ride over existing train service, plus the relative advantage of being faster than an automobile.

Our sense of commuter time isn’t about actual time; it’s all about feeling like we’re not wasting time. We don’t complain about a 45-minute drive from a distant suburb if we are at top speed the whole way. We complain (and calculate the value of the “lost time”) if what could be a 20-minute drive becomes 45 minutes because we’re stuck in traffic.

In March, the New York Times published a column by Conor Dougherty discussing the various engineering and economic technologies that might or might not “cure” automobile traffic congestion. There’s a lot I disagree with in the column, but I did like one particular insight: “Traffic,” Dougherty writes, “is one of the few problems that fabulously wealthy people can’t buy their way out of.”

He’s largely right. People with money often buy themselves out of wasting time standing in lines: at airports, train stations, theatres, amusement parks, etc. In Los Angeles, they even have their own terminal now, to avoid all the time spent in check-in and security lines the rest of us put up with.

But moving around and through cities generally means moving through shared public space, and there’s no way of getting around that. The wealthy can buy a more comfortable ride, but not a faster one.

Except maybe in southern Ontario, where we seem increasingly comfortable with a two-tiered transportation system, even when built with public money.

The first example was Highway 407. That it became a privately-held entity is one thing, but even if it had remained in public hands, making it a toll road made it slightly less than public.

Making the 407 a toll road created not just an alternate highway, but one on which there was less traffic. For those with enough disposable income, they could buy their way to less wasted time. I’ve heard many acquaintances confess their love for the 407 for the precise benefit of escaping the slower, more congested 401.

Then we had the Union-Pearson Express, designed to help downtown business travellers get to Pearson more quickly and reliably—but it was priced out of the reach of ordinary travellers and families. The tickets were so expensive, they ran nearly empty trains until the embarrassment of it all compelled them to lower prices.

Next up was the proposal to toll the inner-city highways in Toronto.

In both this case and the 407, the imposition of tolls is about raising revenue to support road infrastructure. That’s not a bad idea, on the face of it. Certainly, Toronto needs to consider seriously raising more revenue, rather than the current plan to freeze the budget and cut services.

However, it creates a two-tiered system where those with enough extra cash get to go faster. Less wasted time for them. The rest of us would find ourselves going a little slower with the extra traffic now on the rest of the roads, slowing down both private cars and public transit buses.

It’s not that the upkeep of the Don Valley Parkway is more expensive than the rest of the road network in Toronto. The mayor didn’t propose a tax on all drivers. He proposed turning the fastest roads from publicly accessible routes into more privileged spaces.

And now we have a proposal for high-speed rail. There were two bits in the announcement that made me think this was a similar kind of plan, serving a particular segment of the population rather than the general public.

First was that it was proposed for the Toronto-London-Windsor corridor, where HSR and (for part of it) GO Regional Express Rail would replace existing Via service.

It’s odd that they would choose not to start with the most travelled corridor of Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal, which carries 55 per cent of Via’s passengers. Okay, crossing the provincial border makes things complicated, so leave off Montreal for now. But start with a better connection between the nation’s capital and the province’s, surely?

Instead, the priority is improving service southwest of Toronto, particularly to Kitchener-Waterloo. KW could use more and better service, yes, and a longstanding promise to provide all-day, two-way GO train service has yet to materialize. GO RER is poised to help with that, eventually.

Who are the potential riders here? The demand and pressure have been coming from high-tech companies whose research is based in and around Waterloo University. Many of those workers live in Toronto and commute out.

This is connected to the second part that bugged me, which was the framing of this plan: the announcement specifically referenced enabling people to live on this corridor and commute daily to Toronto.

That equates them with other commuters living in or close to the city. But the investment of public funds in those commutes is nowhere near the same.

The working estimate for this project is $21 billion. The projection is that HSR on this line would serve 10.6 million riders annually by 2041.

Where would the fares need to be set in order to cover a good part of the operating costs of the new line? Who will be able to afford the HSR fares to commute daily from London? What and who are we investing public money in?

At 10.6 million riders, less than a week’s worth of riders on the TTC.

We could build the relief line all the way from Sheppard for half of that and serve over 300,000 riders a day the moment it opens. Or, to use the comparable annual figure (by multiplying by the usual 300), over 90 million per year.

Nine times the ridership for half the money. And that’s if I accept the 10.6 million figure at face value. But I have some doubts that the current Via ridership in the entire Windsor-London-Sarnia-Toronto corridor of just over 3,000 per day (923,127 total ridership in 2016) is going to grow to an average 35,000 per day on HSR.

Or, maybe before we add HSR to existing lines, we could restore regional train service to the levels it had before cuts in the 1980s, 1990s, and in 2015, and to places that no longer have any.

Maybe this proposal is not as privileged a space as I fear. Maybe train fare won’t go up on these lines over existing Via fares. Maybe everyone will get to ride faster.

But I remain worried that we will create a faster service only affordable to a select few. I remain worried that we will invest the extraordinary sum of $21 billion dollars on transportation, but not put that investment where it will help the largest number of people, and make the biggest difference to our economy and our environment.

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