Dissertation Update: A Mini-Eureka Moment!

As some of you know, I have been writing my masters dissertation on why Canada lacks high-speed rail passenger service. I am hoping to answer this question by drawing on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to observe whether potential explanations of the Canadian experience occur in other developed nations.

My working hypothesis is that high-speed rail development is hindered by the ownership of passenger rail infrastructure by private freight-oriented companies. My theory is that Canada’s preference for freight infrastructure has contributed significantly to VIA Rail’s chronic delays and further hindered the development of passenger-specific infrastructure like high-speed rail.

I am in the process of developing a private ownership scale that can account for differences is in ownership levels across cases, rather than rely on a clunky three-point approach (1-private, 0.5-mixed, 0-state). While I still need more time build that scale, I think I found something yesterday that may offer a different (but equally interesting) explanation in the interim. High-speed rail development in a country may be negatively impacted by the relative strength of freight rail.

Reliance on freight: a barrier to high-speed development?

I stumbled across a document that outlined the modal split of total inland freight transport across the member states of the EU. In laymen’s terms, this document essentially measures the percentage of goods in a country that are shipped using each mode of freight (train, truck, waterway). I created a bar chart (Figure 1) that identified the share of rail across the entirety of the OECD (n = 35*). I assumed correctly that Canada’s rail share for freight would be well above the average, but I underestimated how high Canada ranked in relation to the rest of the OECD (second place, behind only Latvia).

Figure 1

At first glance, the positions of countries with low and high levels of dependence make sense. Small countries situated on coasts, islands, and peninsulas (such as the Netherlands, Ireland, and Korea) will naturally be less reliant on rail for their freight than those with inland or landlocked populations (such as those in North America and Central Europe) because of their access to waterways; however the high dependence of rail freight in the Baltic States bucks this trend because their coastal characteristics should increase the share of waterways as a freight mode. This divergence may be attributed to the historical and contemporary influence of Russia in shaping the freight modal shares in Baltic states.

Measuring freight and high-speed association: Pearson’s R

While the factors shaping a country’s reliance on freight merit further exploration, the point of exploring the rail share statistic in this impromptu study was to examine whether an association exists between freight and high-speed rail development. The latter variable can be measured in two ways:

1. As a binary variable to indicate the presence of high-speed rail in a given country (0-absent, 1-present)

2. As an interval variable to measure the overall length of a county’s high-speed rail network (km)

An association can be obtained by calculating the Pearson’s R value between the two variables. This calculation produces a proportion between -1 and 1 (signifying negative and positive association respectively). An association between two variables is considered stronger the further the value is situated from 0. For the purposes of this impromptu study, the data was placed in an Excel spreadsheet (then copied to Google Sheets for readers) and the Pearson’s R values were obtained using the following function:


Each array represents the values of a given value for each variable. To examine the data and Pearson R values, click here.


In examining the relationship between freight rail and the presence of high-speed rail in the OECD, the Pearson’s R value is -.50. This value indicates a strong, negative association between the two variables. In other words, countries with higher reliance on rail for freight are less likely to have high-speed rail.

Digging deeper, we can examine the relationship between freight rail and the length of a country’s high-speed network. The Pearson’s R value for this relationship is -.37, indicating a moderate and negative association between the two variables. Although the strength of this association is somewhat lower than that of freight and presence, it nonetheless demonstrates that countries with higher levels of freight reliance tend to have less high-speed development. When displayed on a graph, the results demonstrate a clear downward trend (Figure 2):

Figure 2. Canada is represented by the red dot in the right-hand corner.

Obviously, this is a preliminary result and it may become spurious after accounting for different factors such as population, geography, service governance, and (most importantly) private track ownership levels. But on first glance, it appears that high-speed rail development in the OECD is hindered by higher levels of dependence on rail for freight transport. The Canadian experience is no exception to this rule.

I will have more data in the coming days, but this mini-Eureka moment will hold me over for the time being.

*NOTE: Colombia and Iceland are omitted from this study due to a lack of reliable rail data. Iceland has no public railway system and Colombia has only been an OECD member since April 2020.

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