Canada Sole G8 Country With No High Speed Rail

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 02, 2009

The June 2, 2009 issue of The Walrus features a special on high speed rail in Canada - or, rather, high speed rail not in Canada, given that we're the only G8 nation that doesn't have any.

Monte Paulsen has written a chilling indictment of the decades of neglect and political cowardice that have brought us to this point, a point at which the billions of dollars in Canadian stimulus spending are going into roadwork, highways, automobile manufacturers, Alberta oilsands - in fact, just about everything but the high speed rail that countries like Spain are expanding rapidly and ambitiously.

This paragraph catches the crux of the matter, after surveying the 20 or so countries that have or are developing high speed rail networks:

Why are these countries planning and building high-speed rail lines? Because they're a kind of insurance policy for the twenty-first century. High-speed rail ensures that cities remain connected the next time the price of oil rises, and in the event that $150-a-barrel oil returns for good. Because it is so much more fuel efficient, high-speed rail is far, far greener than flying, and in a century of dwindling oil it's also far more economically sustainable - a fact Saudi Arabia seems to grasp, but Canada does not.

How can the home of Bombardier and a country whose population is concentrated in dense urban corridors just perfect for inter-urban rail be so far behind the curve that, as Paul Langan of High Speed Rail Canada puts it, "it's like we can't even see their tail lights anymore"?

Forty years ago, Canada produced a train that could race from Toronto to Montreal in two hours, had we but bothered to invest in building dedicated rail lines. Decades of astonishingly costly highway construction later - the sheer number of highway lanes pour into Toronto staggers the imagination - our rail network is even worse, and in any case dominated by the freight traffic that takes priority over passenger rail.

Of course, this state of affairs feels normal because that's just how it is. Paulsen illustrates just how bizarre and counterproductive an arrangement it is by turning the tables for a moment:

Imagine how efficient automotive travel would be if the federal government owned and operated every passenger vehicle on the Trans-Canada Highway. Then suppose the government handed the Trans-Canada itself to a multinational trucking company, which subsequently decreed that passenger vehicles would have to pull off to the shoulder whenever a truck wished to pass.

Part of the problem after decades of neglect is that, as Paulsen notes, "Canadians have yet to fall back in love with passenger rail. How could they? There's nothing here to love."

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Frank (registered) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 10:06:58

That final quote essentially sums up the problem. They don't want to build it because they don't see people demanding it now but they don't realize that if you build it people will demand more of it.

I had the same questions when I was watching a Discovery channel special on high speed rail lines. Why the heck don't we have any? Europe and Asia have them all over the place... Why is the rest of the world so focused on it while we pour our money into propping up dead or dying industries? We'd be able to keep our steel plants because rail lines will be in high for Hamilton I think.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2009 at 13:57:27

I'll probably play the following tune ad nauseum on this site:

The feds need to spend the stimulus money on more ecologically sustainable and energy efficient infrastructure. Right now Ottawa is completely dropping the ball.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 15:32:19

Canada has too much geography and not enough people to make high speed rail economically feasible.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 16:16:10

Capitalist: We have comparable population and density to Europe in many areas of Canada, especially along primary corridors connected with the U.S. - including Windsor-Quebec City, Calgary-Edmonton and in south-west BC.

For comparison, Sweden's entire population is 9.3 million (about two-thirds that of the Windsor-Quebec corridor) and that nation has hundreds of kilometres of quasi-high speed (200 km/h) trains with improvements to the network in the works.

I do agree that a trans-Canada HSR is probably not in the cards.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 16:45:07

Let's quantify 'too much geography and not enough people'

Toronto - Montreal: Combined CMA 8.7M, distance 545km, travel time 1h 45min Toronto - Ottawa: 6.2M, 450km, 1h 30min Ottawa - Montreal: 4.7M, 190km, 40min Montreal - Quebec: 4.3M, 250km, 50min Edmondon - Calgary: 2.0M, 295km, 1h Vancouver - Calgary: 3.2M, 970km, 3h 15min Vancouver - Edmonton: 3.1M, 1160km, 3h 50min

In Southern Ontario, there is just so much geography and so few people that we'll settle for conventional electric rail at 200km/h:

Toronto - Kitchener: 5.6M, 110km, 30min Toronto - Hamilton: 5.8M, 60km, 18min Toronto - London: 5.6M, 195km, 1h Hamilton - Kitchener: 1.1M, 65km, 20min Hamilton - London: 1.2M, 130km, 40min

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By Paul Langan (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2009 at 07:39:37

Great article. ,I am the founder of High Speed Rail Canada, a non-profit citizens group dedicated to educating Canadians on the benefits of high speed rail. We do this through our website, and through our public symposiums. Check out our website. Thanks Paul

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By Then Who? (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2009 at 13:48:56

Although I agree 100% that the Conservatives are squandering away what is supposed to be Economic Stimulus monies, the question remains; are there are political parties (Federal or Provincial) willing to take on this task [High Speed Rail]?

I have not heard of High Speed Rail in any electoral campaigns in recent years... so then who's going to bring this motion into light?

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted June 05, 2009 at 21:48:30

There is a difference between Canada and the other G8 countries.

A little less than 20 million people live in the 1,150 km Windsor-Quebec City corridor. The scale and density is the same as you find in European high speed rail corridors.

We have comparable population and density to Europe in many areas of Canada, especially along primary corridors connected with the U.S. - including Windsor-Quebec City, Calgary-Edmonton and in south-west BC.

I am sure that Ryan and arienc are correct in their comments, as far as they go. But note the word "corridors" is found in both of their responses. There lies, I believe, the essential difference between Canada and the other G8 countries. While we have corridors, they have networks. Our corridors are mostly east-west, exept for the Edmonton - Calgary corridor.

Look at Jonathan Dalton's example. Of all the cities he lists there are only two that could be said not to lie on a more or less continuous east - west corridor; these would be Kitchener and Ottawa. (I am suggesting that the main corridor would be from Detroit/Windsor through London, Brantford and Burlington to Toronto and then on through Kingston to Montreal and Quebec.)

Don't get me wrong; I spent a good part of my youth in the Netherlands which has an incredible railway system. I fell in love with trains at an early age, but the particular city I lived in had passenger trains going in seven different directions! When you have trains running in a corridor, however, there is only one place to go when you get to the end; that is to go back.

Nevertheless, I do think Toronto to Montreal would be a good place to start. I recall going to Montreal on Via Rail and where the railroad runs parallel to Highway 401, the train was running faster than most of the vehicles on the adjacent road. Just think what that would be like if the train was going 200 to 300 km/hr. instead of around 140!

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By rideyerbike (registered) | Posted June 08, 2009 at 01:28:23

"I have not heard of High Speed Rail in any electoral campaigns in recent years... so then who's going to bring this motion into light?"

Elizabeth May and the federal Green Party --> big fans of high-speed rail lines. See:

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