Canada 150

High-Speed Rail Is One of Canada’s Biggest Failures

You can blame both Prime Minister Trudeaus for this one.

by James Wilt
Jun 26 2017, 3:02pm

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

In late March, VIA Rail announced a staggeringly good deal to get a little corporate synergy behind Canada 150.

For only $150, anyone between the ages of 12 and 25 could buy an unlimited youth pass for July. In other words, for around the price of one-way flight from Toronto to Montreal, you could spend an entire month riding the train back and forth between Vancouver and Halifax, up to Churchill, down to Windsor, wherever you wanted providing there was room in economy class.

It sure would've been a hell of a way to take an affordable summer vacation before carting off to college.

But the VIA Rail website was overloaded and crashed almost immediately. Young people were on the phone for hours; one woman apparently called VIA Rail almost 200 times. As it turned out, there were only 1,867 tickets — groan — and they were snapped up almost immediately. Comparisons to the golden ticket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory abounded.

VIA later responded to widespread outrage by bumping that number up to the far less symbolic figure of 4,000. But even that only represents less than 0.1 per cent of the 4.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 in this giant country.

As a Twitter user put it: "@VIA_Rail is definitely getting a taste of how deprived our generation is of affordable opportunities to explore our own country."

That's exactly it.

The omnipresent "Canada 150" marketing boasts of the county's world-class museums and breathtaking national parks (the latter of which are free to enter for the year). But for many young people with precarious low-wage jobs and maxed out student loans, it's near-impossible to actually get to these places.

That's where trains—a centrepiece of Canada's colonial mythologizing should be entering the picture, offering comfortable cross-country transportation at affordable rates with considerably lower greenhouse emissions than airplanes and cars (especially if trains are electrified with power from low-carbon sources).

Yet here we are, with Canada's passenger rail Crown corporation completely botching what should have been a prime marketing opportunity. It's really a rather beautiful metaphor for the absolute, uh, trainwreck that is the history of passenger rail in Canada.

Much of the recent chatter about the sorry state of passenger rail in Canada has concerned the missed potential for "high-speed rail," loosely classified as trains that can exceed 250 km/h.

The legendary Shinkansen network in Japan, first built in 1964, now boasts a maximum operating speed of 320 km/h. France features its extensive Train à Grande Vitesse network, while China has built 20,000 kilometres of high-speed tracks.

Meanwhile, Canada is the only G8 country without high-speed rail (although, to be fair, the U.S. isn't much better).

Anthony Perl, professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University and expert on passenger rail policy, told VICE: "We are the world's leading laggard when it comes to high-speed rail.

"Even Kazakhstan, and I don't mean to pick on them, has a very successful high-speed rail service. If you would have told me when I moved to Canada in 1984 that Kazakhstan would be well ahead of Canada in developing its high-speed rail service, I would have found that a little bit odd. But there is it."

The main prohibitor is, of course, costs: no government has wanted to take on the responsibility for funding a multi-billion project in a political landscape in which total debt is effectively the only debated metric.

Ryan Katz-Rosene, professor in political science at the University of Ottawa who wrote his dissertation on high-speed rail in Canada, told VICE: "When governments in the 60s and 70s were more likely to see an expense like that as a big public benefit that was tied into the national interest or other types of modernist objectives, those costs seem justifiable."

There have been plenty of studies of the potential for actual high-speed rail on dedicated tracks ever since. So many, in fact, that Rick Mercer devoted a whole sketch in 2011 to Canada's proclivity to studying the issue without actually building anything, what Perl describes as a low "talk-do ratio."

"We have a cultural vacuum," Paul Langan, founder of the advocacy group High Speed Rail Canada, said in an interview with VICE. "People can't conceptualize high-speed rail: they think it's futuristic. That's something we have to get over. In other parts of the world, it's just transportation."

The idea is now back on the table: on May 19, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the province would fund a $15 million environmental assessment for a $21-billion high-speed rail line in the Toronto-Windsor corridor.

Langan says he's "cautiously optimistic" about this proposal. He suggests it has more potential than previous iterations given heavy investments the provincial Liberals have made in southern Ontario's GO Transit system and Union Pearson Express, as well as the establishing of the federal private infrastructure bank by the Trudeau Liberals.

It's a sentiment echoed by Perl, although he cautions that a public-private partnership—the expected financing route for the Ontario line—will likely result in higher costs to the public compared to using low-interest government borrowing.

Furthermore, the whole plan could be ruined if the Patrick Brown-led Ontario Conservatives win in June 2018. Langan says: "If they get into power provincially, it's probably dead in the water."

But say for the sake of argument that the Liberals do get re-elected.

Getting a high-speed rail line built between Toronto and Windsor would indeed be monumental for Canada, opening up the possibility to eventually extend the line to create the fabled Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Hell, it might even serve as a kick in the ass for Alberta, which sports the only other transport corridor deemed dense enough for the technology—between Edmonton and Calgary—and has also studied the concept to death.

But those are the only two places it would be economically viable for high-speed rail. Canada is far too vast with far too little density to justify a national buildout like in Europe or Asia.

"It would be pretty rare to find any sort of transportation expert or government study about trans-continental high-speed rail," Katz-Rosene says. "It just doesn't make sense to have a high-speed train from Vancouver to Toronto."

This is fine for commuters or people who live in one of those two transport corridors and want to use high-speed rail to visit family or hit up Toronto's esteemed Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.

The lines obviously should be built; as Wynne recently put it: "The best time to have built high speed rail was 40 years ago. The second best time is today."

But high-speed rail doesn't resolve the aforementioned issue of affordable and reliable cross-country transportation for the youths. Oftentimes, the concept seems to be dreamt about as a silver bullet (train) of sorts, without any serious discussion about the broader context of transportation that it operates in. Katz-Rosene actually argues that high-speed rail can encourage more fossil fuel-based transportation if not done right.

The younger Trudeau loves to draw a straight line between his dad's reign and his own.

"We don't seem to have difficulty understanding the road transportation system as a network of various levels meeting different kinds of mobility needs," Perl says. "And we're pretty good about that with air as well. But in rail, we're not there yet."

In other words, one—and maybe even two—high-speed rail lines is not enough.

To turn Canada into a country in which people can: a) afford to travel; b) not have to risk their lives in the remarkably hazardous practice of driving; and c) drastically cut per-capita greenhouse emissions, we'll need all sorts of trains: light-rail, monorails, subways, regional trains, Thomas the Tank Engine and inter-city high-speed rail.

VIA Rail would be what knits this utopian vision all together. Yup, the same damn rail service that couldn't even pull off a basic sales drive.

The key thing to understand about VIA is that its subpar service isn't really its fault.

Like in the days of the TurboTrain, the Crown corp has to rent track time from CN and CP Rail, which still prioritize freight traffic. VIA actually only owns three per cent of the tracks it uses. As a result, Katz-Rosene says it's not uncommon for VIA trains to be delayed hours because a freight train has broken down or needs to pass: "Freight rules," he says. "They're the ones who own it and that's the priority for the owners of the company."

"You end up outside Saskatoon at some ungodly hour in the middle of the morning, wondering what you did to deserve that," Langan quips.

That has obviously cost them some serious business. In its recent four-year corporate plan, the company straight-up acknowledged that "VIA Rail's lack of competitiveness is caused by its very low frequencies, ever increasing trip times and deteriorating [on time performance]."

Can't get much more blunt than that.

Their solution is obvious: dedicated tracks. In fact, VIA has calculated that acquiring and rehabbing a $4-billion line of its own between Quebec and Windsor—by far, its most popular route—would improve "on time performance" by over 95 per cent and triple the number of trains that travel the corridor every day. Average speed would be increased from 103 km/h to around 150 km/h.

That same approach could easily be expanded across Canada, and would be assisted by funding a new fleet of trains and electrifying existing cars. Tickets could be further subsidized by the government. Sure, all this would have a considerable price tag, but it's the kind of investments that other developed countries have been making for years.

"Spend money on improving the existing inter-city transportation system," Katz-Rosene recommends. "We have the infrastructure in place. Let's electrify it. Let's build more sidings."

It was Pierre Elliott Trudeau who pledged during the 1974 election to create a Canadian version of Amtrak, an interventionist attempt to save passenger rail from the competitive onslaught of cars and airplanes. That's how VIA was formed, first as a division of CN and later an independent Crown corporation. Yet it's been plummeting in funding and ridership since the 1980s.

The younger Trudeau loves to draw a straight line between his dad's reign and his own. Is it really too much to ask that Justin completes the legacy of affordable, low-carbon and efficient passenger rail, making historic investments in VIA, high-speed rail and urban transit?

Yeah, it probably is. Oh well, it's not like he's planning to privatize the airports and make flying more expensive for everyone.

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