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Canada’s lack of high speed rail is a national embarrassment

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CN TurboTrain in Toronto, 1975

A few months ago, for the first time in two decades, I found myself in Dundas, Ontario. I didn’t want to be in Dundas, mind you, but I was there because I was on my way to the Aldershot GO Train Station near Hamilton. I didn’t want to be there either, but I had to be because it was a Sunday and there was no other reasonable way to get from where I was, Cambridge, to where I wanted to be, in downtown Toronto.

So, with the help of my septuagenarian father in law and his Kia Sportage, I made my way through the two-lane back roads from Canada’s most important tech cluster to a spare, squat building near the shores of Lake Ontario to get to North America’s third largest city, just 98km from my original location.

Canada is the only G8 nation that doesn’t have fast trains. This is not only a national embarrassment, but I would suggest it leaves an immeasurable economic hole in our country.

Everyone knows that getting 100km to a major city in most parts of the developed world in a cinch. Countries like Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and China all have trains that travel more than 200km/h. But so does Russia. And Turkey. And Uzbekistan. Yes, Uzbekistan, where the Tashkent–Samarkand high-speed rail line shuttles people between Tashkent, (population 2.3-million) and Samarkand, (population 436,000).

But not Canada, although we are very good at talking about it. Recently, the Province of Ontario announced that it would begin an environmental assessment for a high speed rail line that would connect Toronto with London, Windsor and Kitchener-Waterloo.

In the 1960’s and 70’s CN operated the UAC TurboTrain between Toronto and Montreal. But the service was marred by delays because the track quality was extremely poor owing to the fact that they were shared with freight trains.

The line is part of a decade long transportation plan from the Ontario Liberals that would see $29-billion spent on transit infrastructure. But Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca says the environmental assessment alone could take six years.

Many previous attempts to get high speed rail in Canada have gone off the tracks.

In the 1960’s and 70’s CN operated the UAC TurboTrain between Toronto and Montreal. But the service was marred by delays because the track quality was extremely poor owing to the fact that it was shared with freight trains. Although the TurboTrain was capable of 200 km/h, it was operated at 160 km/h.

Later, a Bombardier train connecting cities and towns in the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor ran into similar problems.

In the late 1990’s The Lynx consortium, which included SNC-Lavalin, AGRA Monenco, Bombardier, and GEC Alstho, proposed a 320 km/h high-speed train from Toronto to Quebec City via Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal. But that too, fell apart as questions about economic viability surfaced.

The Liberal government’s plan in Ontario is forward thinking, but this is a national issue, not a provincial one.

I am not proposing a national plan that features high speed trains that link Saskatoon to Halifax, or Winnipeg to Kelowna. I am talking about the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, a region that spans 1,150 kilometres and contains three of our four largest metropolitan areas and more than half our population.

Now, to be precise, I am not proposing a national plan that features high speed trains that link Saskatoon to Halifax, or Winnipeg to Kelowna. I am talking about the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, a region that spans 1,150 kilometres, and contains three of our four largest metropolitan areas and more than half our population.

The benefits of high speed rail must of course always be measured against the cost of building and maintaining such a service. There will be plans that are too expensive and there will be no shortage of people around that will point this out. And part of the problem, says one expert, is that it’s particularly tricky to measure the economic benefit of high speed rail.

“It’s tough to convince people that just because you have a positive cost-benefit ratio, a project is worthwhile. Most people have a hard time seeing that,” W. Bruce Allen, an emeritus professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton told TIME recently. “If you try to tell [someone] that so-called ‘time benefits’ are worth so much money, they’ll ask you, ‘Well, can I see that? Is that real money?”

But there are measurable benefits. According to Environment America, high-speed rail uses a third less energy per mile than auto or air travel. Getting people onto trains reduces highway maintenance. Studies also show that areas with a 10% increase in train frequency experience significant external benefits such as lower pollution, fewer road accidents and drops in infant mortality. Trains also have a much better safety record than cars, with a passenger death rate of 0.3 per billion kilometres, versus 1.9 deaths per billion kilometres for cars.

Congestion along lines owned by CN means VIA’s trains are on time just 77% of the time. One route, from Toronto to Vancouver, was on time just 25% of the time.

Edward L. Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard broke down the economics of high speed rail for an imaginary 240-mile link between Dallas and Houston, and though he also found the debate to be a complicated one, he found there was an economic case to be made for high speed rail.

Meanwhile, back in the very real Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, Canadians impression of rail is being shaped in part by the hapless VIA Rail, which is forced to lease track from CN, which uses it for freight. Congestion along lines owned by CN means VIA’s trains are on time just 77% of the time. One route, from Toronto to Vancouver, is on time just 25% of the time. Set your watches.

In Japan, high speed trains are so punctual that railway companies offer a delay certificate if a train is five minutes late.

VIA is now floating the idea of raising private equity to build its own dedicated track. The company’s boss thinks it could help the crown corporation perform better.

“So there is an interest in investing in infrastructure for passenger rail, provided there’s a business opportunity,” says CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. “And we believe that business opportunity is self-feeding, meaning if you have dedicated tracks, you’d be able to provide reliable, on-time service at greater frequencies and shorter trip times, and that’s what justifies private investment.”

While we’re having this conversation at a national level, why don’t we take the opportunity to upgrade Canada’s aged, legacy structure of rail lines that serve both freight and passenger and build a new high speed passenger only line in the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor? A recent estimate of the cost of doing this was $11-billion, plus land acquisition and cars.

Does that sound expensive? It is. But it could set the country up for generations of benefit, some of which we might not even be able to perceive from our current vantage point. And it’s cheaper than the $13.7-billion bailout of the Canadian auto industry. What exactly did we get for that?

Below: A 1970 film on the CN Turbotrain…

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About The Author /

Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.
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  1. Who do you see taking the lead on a project like this? The provinces, the feds, the private sector? Where would the dollars come from?

  2. One of the better articles I have seen written on the subject. And, you provide good, strong data/documentation to support your position.

    Where I’m from in California, high-speed rail is finally (six years by some estimates; decades by others) underway. This is a $68.4 billion project (in year-of-expenditure dollars), will cover 520 miles (what is that, about 836.86 km?) between Los Angeles and San Francisco and is expected to attract around 37.4 million riders at the time of opening in 2029. One way ticket price between those endpoints is expected to be roughly $86. Can California’s system operate without a subsidy? I think it can, although it could take many years (I estimate between 25 and 50 years) before the system is profitable, this taking construction (land acquisition, materials procurement), employment, electricity purchase, food and concession, and infrastructure and equipment costs all into consideration. The number of permanent employees I estimate to be between 3,000 and 3,500 and those include onboard, maintenance, yard, station, and administrative. I estimate average salary at $40,000.00 per year but this could be high or low. I’m sure there are other factors that I have overlooked that need to be considered, but I believe this analysis should suffice in establishing whether or not something on this order is even practical. I believe it is.

    Weighing this against building a comparable highway, to get the kind of equivalent capacity of a high-speed railway, how many lanes of highway would need to be built over what distance? I have heard the maximum capacity of a one-lane highway at 60 mile-per-hour speeds is right around 2,400 vehicles per hour. I would say a more reasonable number would be about 1,500 vehicles per hour. The fact that high-speed rail uses one-third less energy per mile than either an auto or air travel, makes it attractive and the speed, reliability, comfort, safety, efficiency, frequency, convenience and other factors make it even more so.

    I’ve never ridden a high-speed train but way back when I rode trains on the Northeast Corridor under both Pennsylvania RR and Amtrak control. What I remember was a very smooth and comfortable ride.

  3. Unfortunately, you’ll need to go to Europe or Japan to experience this in the near future.

    I particularly enjoyed Italy’s Frecciarossa not just for the smoothness and speed but for the way I was treated on board in very comfortable accommodations. I can’t wait to go back there and experience that again!!!!


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  4. Actually not only Canada, the USA also doesn’t have high speed railroad tracks. OK the USA has high speed trains in the Northeast, but due to the lack high speed railroad tracks, they have to go slow. So both countries are in the same boat. Actually the G8 is more or less defunct since Russia’s expulsion, it is now the G7 again.

  5. The high-speed passenger train route would have to be away from the freight railroads, yet close enough to populated areas to make the commute to the new railroad tracks reasonable. The tracks could be elevated in certain highly populated areas to avoid any grade crossings.

  6. If said route comes into Toronto, it would have to be in a new station, IMHO, because I don’t think that Union Station can accommodate a new HSR rail bed. And this station, in order for it to be in downtown Toronto, would have to be underground, or if it can’t be in downtown Toronto, it would have to have a lot of public transit connections and be easily accessible.

    To pay for this, we really have to look at increasing corporate taxes, and taxes on the wealthy in this country as well.

  7. Forget HSR in Canada. We can;t even build a pipeline across provinces. The only people who can build HSR cheaply is China. Do you want to hire them?

  8. Can HSR be built in Canada? yes it can. Do we need to employ the Chinese to do this? No, we don’t; we can employ the Japanese, French, Germans, or even the South Koreans.

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