Liberal high-speed rail proposal is long on dreams and short on facts

OPINION: Take the Liberals’ proposal to run high-speed trains between Toronto and Windsor with a caboose full of salt
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 23, 2017
a high speed train driving through the country
A number of European countries, including Germany, have high-speed rail service — but the proposed Toronto–Windsor line would be a Canadian first. (TrainPhotography.de/Creative Commons)

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A few weeks after the 2014 election, Premier Kathleen Wynne held her first caucus meeting at Queen’s Park with new, current, and former Liberal MPPs. After welcoming the rookies and congratulating the incumbents, she turned to the lone cabinet member to lose her seat: Teresa Piruzza.

The ex-MPP for Windsor West was there when Wynne said, “We won’t forget about you,” and vowed to help win back seats in Windsor and in the rest of the southwest — a former Liberal bastion where voters have increasingly looked to New Democrats and Tories for representation.

I recalled that moment last week, when the government announced it would spend $15 million on an environmental assessment — an early step in creating a high-speed rail service between Toronto and Windsor. Provincial observers noted the proposed $21-billion railway happens to run through multiple ridings the Liberals would like to reclaim (or simply hold on to) in 2018.

The notion of high-speed rail in Canada is long in the tooth, but it’s still alluring enough. To be able to board a train in, say, Kitchener and arrive in downtown Toronto less than an hour later (instead of the current two hours-plus) — that’s an attractive proposition for travellers who either live in Kitchener or would like to, but who also want access to big-city amenities.

Whether enough such travellers exist to justify the tens of billions of dollars the Liberals expect high-speed rail to cost is another question. The government’s answer — an enthusiastic “yes,” surprise — is based on assumptions that need to be scrutinized.

I’m not inherently hostile to the idea of high-speed rail — just skeptical of it. It’s fair to say investments the Liberals are already making in regional express rail (GO RER) leave open the possibility of true high-speed intercity rail in the future. (RER offers higher frequency on commuter trains at conventional speeds, whereas high-speed rail typically offers speeds greater than 200 km/h.) It’s also fair to say the Liberals aren’t exactly promising miracles.

The report released by the government last week, penned by former federal transportation minister David Collenette, wisely opts against spending massively on the fastest type of high-speed rail — because the benefits of travelling through southwestern Ontario at 300 km/h aren’t much greater than at 250 km/h. But it also sets off alarm bells with even a cursory read.

Most obvious is the brief treatment of what a ticket might cost. Projects like this live or die on how much ridership they can generate, and that ridership will depend on how much it costs to ride. The consultant’s report suggests a range of $15 to $20 for short hops to Union Station, all the way to $85 to $90 for Toronto–Windsor runs. (By comparison, you can take a Via train from Toronto to Windsor for $94.) The idea that the government will be able to spend billions on high-speed rail and undercut the cost of today’s fares needs more than a little explaining.


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It’s early days yet, and tempting to give the government a pass on this for now — except, of course, the Liberals made a big ticket-pricing mistake recently. The Union-Pearson Express train was supposed to pay for its own operations, but to make that possible tickets cost more than simply taking an Uber to the airport (not to mention you can take the TTC for $3.25). Metrolinx, the Crown agency that runs the train, knew prices were too high but hoped ridership would exceed what their own consultants projected. That didn’t happen, and eventually Metrolinx had to face reality and cut fares. The agency lied to the public about it for years, too  — and still hasn’t disclosed what kind of operating subsidy the UP Express will need for the foreseeable future. That’s not exactly a foundation of trust to build on.

But even if the fare issue didn’t raise a bunch of red flags — the whole point of the endeavour is to offer cheaper service and make up the difference in volume — there’s the question of where demand will come from. Of the more than 10 million annual trips the high-speed rail line is supposed to generate by 2041, 8.7 million come from stops between Kitchener and Toronto. Which is fine, except that’s precisely the corridor already meant to be served by GO RER — all-day, two-way, frequent rail service across the GTHA out to Kitchener, if the government’s prior commitments are to be believed.

The Liberals assume the difference between GO RER and true high-speed rail will account for a quintupling of rail’s passenger share along the route, which is now dominated by cars. That’s a heck of an assumption. GO RER is already supposed to reduce the travel time between Waterloo Region and Toronto to less than 90 minutes, so the government apparently believes there will be a massive number of people willing to ride the train when it takes 45 minutes but not when it takes an hour and a half. Those people will surely exist, but will there be millions and millions of them, as the plan requires? And if they don’t materialize, what will that do to fares?

I’m not a professional rail planner, nor do I pretend to be one. Perhaps there’s evidence to suggest high-speed rail will be a winner in Ontario — but a government that’s given voters the Scarborough subway and the UP Express doesn’t get the presumption of innocence.

This announcement, like the one the Liberals made just before the 2014 election, looks an awful lot like a line drawn on a map for the government to campaign on. But the siren song of better trains didn’t, in fact, save Liberal seats in the southwest last election. Mercifully, the government is spending only $15 million on this for now. But before millions become billions, they need to show their work.

Photo courtesy of TrainPhotography.de and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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