High-speed rail systems were first introduced in Japan in the 1960s. Since then, they have expanded into several European and Asian countries, including France, Germany and China.
In North America, there is just one such service, in the northeastern United States between Washington and Boston via New York City. Canada is the only G8 country that does not have high-speed rail.
In 2008, the Canadian government and the governments of Quebec and Ontario commissioned a study into the feasibility of high-speed rail service in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. The move came on the heels of renewed concerns about the environment, fuel prices and highway congestion.
The study was conducted by the EcoTrain Consortium, a group of five international consulting firms.
The Quebec City–Windsor corridor was selected because it comprises about two thirds of the total Canadian population, and thus represents the best potential market for high-speed rail. Moreover, it already accounts for 85% to 90% of VIA Rail’s passenger traffic volume.
The EcoTrain study (2.2 MB, 244 pages), published in early 2011, updated a tripartite study conducted in 1995. It evaluated two technologies, based on minimum speeds of 200 kilometres per hour (km/h) using diesel technology and 300 km/h using electric technology. A typical train would have a capacity of 400 passengers.
The study’s conclusions
Among the study’s findings:
Timeline: It would take at least 14 years after a go-ahead decision to put the full corridor into commercial service.
Capital costs: Total capital costs over the life of the project in 2009 dollars would range between $18.9 billion for the diesel technology and $21.3 billion for the electric technology.
Operating costs: For diesel technology, annual operating and maintenance costs in constant (2009) dollars would amount to $492 million in 2025 and $589 million by 2055. For an electric system, the costs would reach $520 million a year in 2025 and $607 million a year by 2055.
Financial analysis: In a public-private partnership scenario, at least 50% of the capital investment would have to come from government. A wholly private sector option was considered to be financially unfeasible. The analysis suggested that the operations of two segments within the corridor (Montréal-Toronto and Quebec City-Toronto) could be profitable, meaning that revenues would exceed operating and maintenance costs. However, a relatively long period would be required to recoup the capital investment, and, in some projection scenarios, payback was not achievable.
Economic analysis: An analysis of the non-financial costs and benefits of the project (e.g., social benefits, environmental impacts, public safety improvements and potential impacts on competing modes of transportation) suggested that for the Canadian economy as a whole, the Montréal-Toronto segment of the project would provide a positive economic impact using either the diesel or the electric technology, whereas the Quebec City-Toronto segment would provide a positive economic impact with the electric technology only. The Toronto-Windsor segment was not projected to be economically feasible.
Ridership: Table 1 shows the percentage share of total passenger traffic by mode of travel for 2006 and compares it with total projected passenger traffic volumes under the two forms of high-speed rail. According to the projections, the introduction of high-speed rail would more than double passenger rail’s share of traffic volume, but motor vehicle travel would keep its status as the dominant mode of transportation.
Table 1 - Annual Passenger Traffic Share by Mode of Travel in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor
|Mode of Travel
||Diesel Train Scenario
|Electric Train Scenario
Table prepared by the author using data from EcoTrain, Updated Feasibility Study of a High Speed Rail Service in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor: Final Report (2.2 MB, 244 pages), Prepared for Ministère des transports du Québec, Ministry of Transportation of Ontario and Transport Canada, 14 February 2011.
According to a media report in late 2011, the federal government has no immediate plans to support high-speed rail, given the current state of public finances and budgetary priorities.
In the interim, the government has invested some $923 million in VIA Rail Canada’s five-year capital spending plan to improve passenger rail service within the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. This is expected to increase VIA’s passenger ridership capacity by 32%, or 650,000 passengers a year, within the corridor, as well as improve travel times.
The plan includes the following components:
- Renewing rolling stock by rebuilding 54 locomotives and renovating 98 passenger cars. This will extend the equipment’s useful life by up to 15 to 20 years and upgrade performance standards at a more reasonable cost than that of buying new stock.
- Upgrading rail infrastructure to reduce bottlenecks and delays. This entails installing more passing tracks and sidings to allow passenger trains to bypass slower freight trains. It also entails adding sections of track in the Montréal-Toronto segment to separate passenger traffic from freight traffic.
- Rehabilitating several railway bridges and improving crossings and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses.
- Adding trains to increase the frequency of service, and improving signalling and traffic control systems throughout the corridor.