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The Future of High-Speed Rail in Canada

The Problem With Passenger Rail in Canada

Passenger rail in Canada has had its ups and downs in the past. In the mid-20th century, VIA Rail - Canada’s passenger rail agency - was a world leader in passenger rail. Following the 1990s, VIA Rail’s operations were slashed by a significant amount which has led to the current VIA Rail network being a shell of what it was pre-1990s. As a result, VIA Rail’s frequency, quality, and speed have been left in the dust by East-Asian and European modern standards of passenger rail. 

Unfortunately, the current status of Canadian passenger rail is suboptimal compared to their equivalent European and East-Asian counterparts. Frequency is consistent across the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, providing connections between Canada's major cities like Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City. Outside of this corridor, train lines to Western Canada and the Maritimes are much less frequent. As a result, Canadians are much more likely to take flights than trains for domestic trips. Even trips between Montreal and Toronto are made preferably through airlines rather than by train. In European countries such as France, flights between interprovincial cities are commonly banned due to extraordinary emissions from such a short distance. 

So the prognosis is obvious. The status to judge Canada's quality of passenger rail service would entirely depend on how competitive Canadian passenger rail is against domestic airline trips. As is right now, domestic airlines easily outcompete rail in Canada; therefore, we can conclude that Canadian passenger rail is subpar in its usefulness compared to airlines. 


The solution to improving passenger rail is multifaceted. For starters, increasing the frequency of all VIA Rail lines will give more confidence to people on how reliable interregional travel is. For instance, trains going to Edmonton every hour will be much more reliable than trains going once a day. Now that specific example comes with a significant cost increase. But the goal is to incrementally increase the frequency until a stable and respectable frequency is reached. 

The Edmonton-Calgary Corridor 

The next big step for VIA Rail is to incorporate High-Speed Rail in the two corridors where it makes sense to build them. According to independent studies conducted by committees tasked with studying the corridors, the only two corridors where High-Speed Rail is currently being seriously considered are the Toronto-Quebec City corridor and the Edmonton-Calgary corridor.

Fortunately, both of these projects are currently in the consultation phases, where the details on the routes and construction plans are being thought out. 

For the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, the economic benefits of developing High-Speed Rail have been documented to be numerous. According to a 2008 study on the corridor, the project would indirectly provide "$230 to 490 million dollars of extra household income per year" or "$5.6 to 11.7 billion over the project's life". Developmental potential, mainly around city stations, would increase by "$732 to 1,546 million dollars'', increased tax revenue of $33 to 69 million per year, and increased residential property value. 

Note that these benefits are likely to be underestimated since the study only considers HSR speeds of up 300 km/hr compared to the currently proposed 350-400 km/hr. 

Toronto-Quebec City Corridor 

Out of the two corridors, the Toronto-Quebec City corridor is the more significant one as it is among the busiest and most profitable rail corridors in North America; this corridor alone effectively subsidizes all other VIA Rail train services in Canada. Before recent news, the most we were getting was more frequency in that corridor and no changes to the infrastructure or speeds of the line. However, VIA Rail has recently announced that the corridor is now being considered to be constructed and operated by a private consortium. The corridor project will be overseen by a subsidiary of VIA rail and will report to Transport Canada.

Although many people were disappointed that VIA Rail would not be solely responsible for the project. If High-Speed Rail were to become a reality in this particular corridor, VIA Rail would not have the capabilities or experience to build such a line. Instead, it is likely better to collaborate with private companies who have ample expertise and experience constructing HSR in other countries. Some companies that have expressed interest include European and Asian manufacturing giants like Alstom, FCC, Hitachi, and Hyundai. 

LaPresse reports that the Federal Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, has specifically indicated to companies interested in building this project to provide a solution for 300 km/hr high-speed rail. Furthermore, they report that the minister is "challenging" companies to provide a viable, competitive, and electrified 300 km/hr high-speed rail corridor. And using companies that have the experience and expertise is the best, most logical way to get this HSR potential project finished. 

Another benefit to using a private consortium is directly reconciling the possibility that the federal government switches in the upcoming election. Suppose the federal Liberals lose to the federal Conservatives next election. In that case, private project delivery is much less likely to get cancelled than if it was delivered using VIA Rail, a public corporation. And looking at the procurement process of this project, it just so happens to finish around 2025-2026, with 2026 being the year of the federal election. 

HSR in Canada is a Long-Term Vision 

High-Speed Rail's potential is definitely in Canada, and serious plans are currently in the works to implement HSR. However, much of this work is in its preliminary stages. Completion of the two projects will likely happen after 2030. Since high-speed rail projects are intended to be completed over several years, this is how the completion date will be determined.

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