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Today, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced a plan to complete an environmental assessment for Canada’s first high speed rail (HSR) line.

The line would be built on existing tracks, and would take passengers from Union station to London, with stops at Pearson International Airport, Guelph and Kitchener. A second phase would take passengers to Windsor via Chatham.

The project would cost a lot – an estimated $21 billion, but considering the distance between Windsor and Toronto, that’s a reasonable price for North America (see labour and material costs).

There is definitely a downside to this announcement. At the press conference, it was noted that trains would travel up to 250 km per hour in the corridor. That might seem pretty fast, but this would actually be slow for HSR. Comparatively, HSR in Germany travels at 250-300 km/h depending on the line. In Japan, the older HSR lines that opened nearly 50 years ago travel at between 250 and 300 km/h, with new lines easily surpassing 320 km/h – some even topping 400 km/h. Check out Japan’s speed records. Japan, and increasingly China, are definitely countries we should be looking to for inspiration on HSR.

Japan’s bad ass high speed rail network

The key reason that the HSR in Ontario will be slow is because it is essentially and upgrade of existing rail tracks. Doing so saves money, but will guarantee an HSR line that is on the slow end of the technology. I imagine the cost to build a brand new rail corridor would be far too high, particularly given the population and current land uses.

Concerns

While this is definitely a step in the right direction, I wonder about the usefulness of the UP Express. In the press conference, Wynne mentioned that the first phase (Union to London) is planned to open in 2025. As mentioned above, there would be a stop at Pearson Airport. Given that this rail would probably be faster than the UP Express, I imagine most people would choose the faster ride.

That leads me to a second concern. The cost of riding. You might think, well hey the UP Express will cost less than the HSR, so people will still take it. And yes, that will probably be true, but it begs the question, since station building is costly and time consuming, why build a station at Pearson if the cost of riding will be too expensive for most people to use? In other countries, HSR is a legitimate form of transport for commuters.

In Japan, Spain, China, Germany and other European countries, HSR is part of the daily commute for millions of people. It’s not a luxury form of transport, it’s part of the trek to and from work. Given that a current VIA ticket from Toronto to London will cost you close to $30, I am seriously worried that the Ontario attempt at HSR will prove prohibitively expensive. Let’s hope that before too long, we’ll get an idea of how much tickets will cost – lest we have another UP Express ticket price fiasco.

While this new HSR plan is still in its immediate infancy, it is definitely an exciting announcement for the long term economic future of Ontario. I’ll be following developments on this story closely, so be sure to check back for rants a-plenty.

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