Public Works: A Bullet Train for Toronto
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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.