Dissertation: Submitted. What can Canada do to make high-speed a reality?

Figure 1. Cartoon describing Canadian passenger rail service (Credit: David Collier).

March 2021 edit: Dissertation can be found here.

The madness is over! Last Thursday, I officially submitted my master’s dissertation for my degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). In December, I will formally be awarded an MSc in Public Policy and Administration.

In addition to finishing all my coursework, it is so satisfying to find such clear (and statistically significant!) answers to my questions on the factors that drive high-speed rail (HSR) activity in the OECD. It has been an informative past few months, and it was made even more enjoyable by getting to do my research in such beautiful venues as the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick and the north shore of PEI.

By conducting a quantitative study of the factors driving HSR, I discovered two major findings. First, among OECD countries, it is clear that an increased reliance on rail for a country’s freight movement is strongly linked to the absence of HSR — the strongest determinant of all the factors.

Second, among countries where HSR is present, it appears that population density is the strongest determinant of how big a country’s network will be. Additionally, I was able to draw some lessons for Canadian policymakers on how to make HSR a reality. Here’s a brief run down of how I came to these conclusions and what their implications might be for the future of HSR in Canada.

Overview and results

In my literature review I was able to identify a few factors that seemed to offer compelling explanations for the absence of HSR. Specifically, I noted that Canada’s low population density, high private track ownership, strong freight rail dominance (vs other modes of freight), weak passenger rail governance (through Cabinet decree), and decentralized approach to regionalism might serve as key reasons for why we don’t have HSR.

The bulk of my analysis involved examining how strongly each factor was associated with two measurements for HSR:

1. The presence of high-speed rail in a country (a binary variable where ‘0’ meant HSR was absent and ‘1’ meant it was present) by looking at all OECD member states (n=35, excluding Colombia and Iceland).

2. The level of HSR development (measured as the length of the over all network and also presented per 100,000 people and per km2) in countries where high-speed is present (n=20).

You can find my dissertation here. I would also recommend taking a look at the Appendix data for additional reference. The table below presents the Pearson correlation coefficients (Pearson r) for the relationships between each factor and the different measurements of HSR, based on the Appendix data.

Table 1. Pearson r values for the relationship between each factor and the measurements of HSR. The bolded figures are significant at the 99% level (p<0.01).

In measuring the levels of association between each factor and the presence of high-speed rail, I found that freight rail dominance was the strongest barrier to HSR adoption in OECD. When measuring association between each factor and HSR development in OECD countries where high-speed is present, I found that population density was the strongest determinant of a country’s network size.

Interestingly, no country with HSR governed their passenger rail through Cabinet decree (hence the N/A in three cells), with legislative mandates for passenger service being the norm. Additionally, I was surprised to observe that federalism and private track ownership offered no results of any statistical significance. In the discussion section of my dissertation, I elaborate on why I believed those factors performed poorly.

Some takeaways

There are a number of lessons that policymakers can draw from this analysis, but three insights stood out for me.

First, Canada has the population base to support a high-speed rail network within the major cities of the Quebec-Windsor Corridor. Although Canada’s dispersed population makes a national network difficult, a high-speed line would absolutely be feasible for connecting Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and potentially even Quebec City. The area has a similar population size to Hokkaido and the Rhone-Alpes regions of Japan and France — two areas with strong local high-speed rail services. In fact, it appears that the Quebec-Windsor region has a population base that exceeds that of many high-speed rail corridors in France, Spain, Germany, Japan, the United States and Sweden.

Figure 2. City-pair distance and population comparison. From J. Tasker-Brown and J. Patterson (2014).

Where population density becomes a more useful factor is in explaining HSR development among countries where high-speed networks already exist. The figure below plots the relationship between population density and HSR network density to show the strength of the factor.

Figure 3. Population density vs. Network density

Second, Canada’s heavy reliance on freight rail appears to be the strongest barrier to HSR adoption — even more so than the role of federalism or private track ownership. Given this influence, HSR may only become a reality if Canada can attain more dedicated rail for passenger service. Figure 3 identifies the track owned by VIA rail for its service.

Figure 4. VIA-owned infrastructure (in red) within the QWC. From the “RAC Canadian Atlas” by the Railway Association of Canada, but the red lines are due to my skills in Microsoft Paint.

To its credit, VIA is in the early stages of fixing this problem. The Crown corporation’s High-Frequency Rail strategy aims to acquire old freight lines to improve service within the Corridor. This won’t necessarily lead to HSR anytime soon, but VIA’s proposal shows how increased track ownership (either through acquisition or construction) opens up possibilities for future upgrades. Such measures will ensure that passenger trains can operate at speeds exceeding 200 km/h if VIA Rail ever attains the capacity or interest to pursue HSR.

Third, VIA’s governance framework negatively impacts passenger service. The Crown corporation was established through an Order-in-Council in 1977 and has not received enabling legislation. This arrangement makes VIA unaccountable to Parliament and highly dependent on the interests of Cabinet. If Parliament were to establish an act for VIA Rail like the one proposed in this 2017 private member’s bill, VIA would have clearer instructions on minimum service requirements, governance and accountability, and operational autonomy to explore public-private partnerships with existing railway companies.

By establishing a framework for private investment into the expansion of service, opponents of publicly financed HSR might become less apprehensive to the idea if other pools of funding are available. Additionally, the Crown corporation would have greater legitimacy in the eyes of Canada’s main infrastructure owners (such as CN and Metrolinx). This can boost VIA’s standing in track access negotiations and result in more reliable service schedules.

While these takeaways show how HSR could potentially become a reality in Canada, the idea will have limited success if the federal government doesn’t take on a more active role in promoting high-speed rail as a driver of economic growth, sustainable transportation, and regional connectivity. Ottawa should take action on HSR because it can offer significant political, environmental, and financial benefits for Canadians.

Let me know what you think of my findings. I look forward to hearing your feedback (after I take the weekend off).

MSc graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) | Interests include Canadian and UK politics, transit, and health policy