The secret to faster train travel in Ontario

By John Michael McGrath - Published on November 25, 2015
To speed up trains, Via wants its own tracks instead of relying on cargo train rails.

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Via Rail’s president and CEO likes to start his sales pitch with a version of a classic math question: if a freight train leaves Montreal for Toronto at 50 km/h, and an hour later a passenger train capable of travelling 170 km/h an hour leaves Montreal on the same track, when does the passenger train have to slow to a crawl behind the plodding cargo-hauler? The answer, according to Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, is “too soon, and too often.”

Politicians have often floated the idea of high-speed rail – some trains in Europe and Asia can whiz by at more than 300 kilometres an hour – for the busy Windsor-to-Quebec City transportation corridor. While high-speed rail remains firmly in the “dream” category, there are less ambitious ways to make existing rail networks in Ontario faster and more reliable. And two of the country’s largest transportation companies have plans to do just that.

To speed up his trains, Desjardins-Siciliano wants Via to run its own trains on its own tracks instead of relying on rail dominated by slow-moving cargo trains. That way, it can give passengers more reliable and faster service: 15 trains per day instead of the current six, with a two and a half hour trip between Toronto and Ottawa instead of the current four (when everything goes well—which is less and less often, these days.)

“It’s really the nature of the business, and frankly a law of physics,” says Desjardins-Siciliano. “A network can only run as fast as its slowest component.”

Meanwhile, Metrolinx, the government agency charged with planning the GTA’s transit future, has plans of its own: it wants to improve service on the increasingly important Kitchener and Milton lines, where the freight cars of CN and CP Rail currently have priority over GO commuter trains along parts of the track.

Metrolinx estimates that by 2031 the number of passengers using Toronto’s Union Station hub every morning will reach 265,000 – more than four times the levels in 2006. Getting GO Trains off other companies’ freight lines is one way to accommodate that growth in riders, not least because freight traffic in the GTA is growing too.

High-speed rail it ain’t. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne’s government pledged a high-speed rail line from at least London to Toronto in the last days before the 2014 election campaign —and, when trying to hold seats in the province’s southwest during that election, including Windsor as well. The new federal Liberal government hasn’t indicated what it thinks of high-speed rail, but under former prime minister Jean Chrétien the idea was regularly proposed though never implemented.

High-speed rail, while attractive, will be expensive. Desjardins-Siciliano says Via’s plan offers two-thirds of the benefits of a full high-speed rail project, with less than half the cost: $ 4 billion instead of at least $9 billion. Via’s hope is to triple its passenger base on its busiest lines by offering a service attractive enough to take five million drivers off the road between Montreal and Toronto. A second phase could potentially connect to Waterloo and London to Quebec City.

“It’s a start. Then, over time, as the service proves itself to be popular and profitable, that money can be reinvested in even higher speeds” says Desjardins-Siciliano— from 170 km/h to 250 km/h to more than 300 km/h.  But he stresses the process would be gradual: “Over a generation, not immediately.”

Lines on a map are easy to draw, but the reality of these plans is complicated. GO faces the same problems Via does in the western GTA, as it tries to separate its passenger traffic from CN- and CP-owned lines where freight has the right of way.

One example is the proposed Davenport Overpass project in Toronto. It would elevate GO’s Barrie line above an east-west track owned by Canadian Pacific, eliminating potential conflicts and delays at the intersection. The overpass would also, however, loom over many of the two-storey homes in the area and has been opposed by area residents. Locals say they’d prefer an underpass that was tunnelled underneath the CP tracks. Metrolinx ruled out an underpass as prohibitively expensive.

An even bigger challenge for GO is how to deal with traffic on its Milton and Kitchener lines. While Metrolinx owns 80 per cent of the tracks where GO operates train services, that doesn’t include much of the Kitchener line or any of the Milton line, which runs on a key CP freight line going to Windsor and Chicago. 

Metrolinx is considering two proposals to fix this. Plan A would widen the existing rail corridors and build new tracks exclusively for passenger rail. While straightforward, the plan would entail many more fights with local homeowners.

So Toronto, Milton, Mississauga, and Cambridge have proposed a Plan B: building a “missing link” using land around Highway 407. The link would move freight off the Milton and Kitchener lines freeing up space for more GO trains. It would, according to the consultant IBI Group, cost approximately as much as the conventional plan while offering other potential benefits, including not having multiple local battles in ridings the governing Liberals would prefer not to irritate. The “missing link” would also make some other train services possible, including a so-far hypothetical service through Toronto’s midtown.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca told the Toronto Region Board of Trade earlier this month that any plan would still need CN and CP to agree to move their freight traffic, whatever solution Metrolinx may prefer. Since the federal government regulates railways, that will require Ottawa’s help.

“With new government in Ottawa, I think there is a real opportunity to sit down with the rail companies and discuss how we can unlock those corridors, but I can’t force it,” Del Duca said.

For his part, Via’s CEO says the federal rail operator expects to work with the provincial transit agency to maximize the benefits for both.

“If GO can come up with a solution there [in the western GTA] it will meet our needs as well,” says Desjardins-Siciliano. “If we can do anything to help, we will. The more we have tracks only for passenger trains … the better we are.”

Of course, one big question mark facing Via’s expansion is what the federal government will say. While the proposal calls for private investment, not additional tax dollars, neither the prior Conservative government nor the new Liberal government have given their blessing yet. Desjardins-Siciliano is optimistic, especially given the appointment of Marc Garneau as federal transport minister. He says Garneau rides Via trains regularly.

“He has a customer’s perspective,” says Desjardins-Siciliano. “He’s experienced the trains being sidetracked, but he’s also experienced all the good about it—the service and the public value.”

Both GO and Via are waiting to see what the federal government will do next. Until that’s clear, the modest hope of someday riding a reliable, reasonably fast train from Montreal to Toronto will have to wait.

Update: The article originally referred to the Milton line as CP Rail's main east-west Canadian freight line. It is more accurate to describe it as a key freight corridor that runs southwest to Windsor and Chicago.

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