The “New Normal” of Canadian Travel Should Include High-Speed Rail
Published in Nouvelle on June 30, 2020
In Short: Over the coming months, policymakers will have to consider how to support precarious industries to stimulate Canada’s economic recovery. High-speed rail offers affordable, rapid, and sustainable transportation to help boost the tourism and hospitality sector.
COVID-19 has encouraged Canadians to think about how society can improve once the pandemic subsides. Policies like universal basic income, fossil fuel divestment, and law enforcement overhaul have moved off the back burner and have become serious proposals for the “new normal” in Canada. Additionally, individual Canadians are reflecting on how they can contribute to Canada’s economic recovery.
One way in which policymakers can encourage growth is by facilitating greater interprovincial tourism and hospitality. This growth can be accomplished by lowering the economic and environmental barriers to intercity Canadian travel. The best way to lower these costs would be to develop Canada’s passenger rail system through the creation of a high-speed rail network.
The Canadian railroad tragedy: Canada is one of only two G7 countries (the other being the USA), not to have high-speed rail. The effects of this underdevelopment can be demonstrated by Canada’s heavy reliance on air travel for short-haul domestic journeys with air fares that compare to those of transatlantic flights. In many cases, the existing passenger rail services offered by VIA are lengthier and less frequent than journeys by car.
The problems associated with passenger service have been exacerbated by the fact that VIA owns only 3% of the track along its network. The overwhelming majority of the network is owned by the Canadian National Railway (CN), which often cedes the right of way to freight services over passenger ones. VIA also uses tracks owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), the American-owned BNSF Railway Company, the band council-owned Keewatin Railway Company, and transit authorities in Toronto and Montreal. The chronic underinvestment into VIA, including its dependence on freight lines for much of its network, has damaged the position of passenger rail as Canada’s affordable, rapid, and sustainable mode of intercity transportation.
Despite these limitations, there is a growing interest among policymakers to improve passenger rail service in Canada. VIA’s passenger ridership has increased by 25% since 2014. This surge in demand has made VIA aware that the existing infrastructure for passenger service is not sustainable.
On the right track: In response to the increase in ridership, VIA has taken noticeable steps to improve its service. In 2018, VIA awarded a $989 million contract to Siemens to upgrade its fleet. Additionally, VIA has proposed a high-frequency rail (HFR) network that would operate trains along dedicated tracks within the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor (the busiest portion of the network). By acquiring available but underused rail near Peterborough and Trois-Rivières, the new infrastructure could alleviate congestion along current shared tracks.
Although VIA’s plan is expected to triple the number of journeys between major hubs such as Toronto and Montreal, HFR is not expected to significantly reduce journey times. Moreover, the Montreal-Quebec City leg of HFR is in jeopardy because VIA proposes using the Mount Royal tunnel for its service despite it being a major component of the Montreal commuter rail network. There is a risk that the Quebec leg cannot be developed due to the influence of Montreal’s transit authority. As a result, any prospective benefits of VIA’s HFR plan will likely be watered down and further strengthen air travel’s competitive advantage within the Corridor.
The need for speed: If VIA is striving to capitalise on the economic and environmental forces that are driving the increased demand for passenger rail, there should be a greater emphasis on high-speed services within the Corridor. Although a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal high-speed line would likely cost taxpayers at least $11 billion to electrify, the environmental and economic benefits would significantly outweigh the costs. In addition to having a positive net economic benefit, high-speed service within the corridor would provide low-carbon and affordable intercity transportation through Canada’s densest region.
A high-speed line would also act as a rapid intermediary service between VIA’s Western Canada and the Maritime services Greater integration of service can encourage increased ridership outside the Corridor. A surge in trans-Canadian passenger travel can permit VIA to appeal for improved access to rail infrastructure owned by CN and other transit authorities. This can strengthen the business case for non-Corridor regional rail projects such as Alberta’s proposed link between Banff and Calgary.
Additionally, further increases in ridership in the Corridor might encourage airlines to adjust their routes to improve connections from VIA hub cities to underserved communities. This redistribution of air routes would likely result in more long-haul flights within Canada and, consequently, cheaper airfare.
The Bottom Line: VIA deserves acknowledgement for the measures it has taken to modernise passenger service over the last few years. The steps taken today will undoubtedly improve the passenger experience tomorrow; however, more can and should be done to make passenger rail service the “new normal” for Canadian intercity travel post-COVID. Pivoting from high-frequency to high-speed is a strategy that would allow VIA Rail to become a leader in affordable, quick, and sustainable transportation.