Bullet Trains

Photo: iStockphoto.com/hfng
Why Canada should get aboard the high-speed rail movement

Building High Speed Rail (HSR) networks in Canada has long been what tearing down the hulking Gardiner Expressway is to Toronto – a nice idea that politicians entertain now and then only to bury for fear of costs. But the environmental benefits of HSR and the jobs such infrastructure spending could create are giving the idea legs.



Trains, even ones that creep along powered by diesel engines, are inherently efficient ways of moving people and cargo. This has to do with factors such as wind-resistance (one cargo train has less wind to fight than an equivalent 280 trucks) as well as the fact that steel wheels slide more easily on steel tracks than rubber wheels do on pavement.

In Canada, politicians and HSR citizens groups such as High Speed Rail Canada are advocating for four rail systems linking the Windsor – Quebec City, Boston – Montreal, Calgary – Edmonton and Seattle – Whistler corridors. It is estimated that a 300km/h electric-powered HSR network running between Windsor and Quebec City would reduce energy consumption in the corridor by 20 percent. According to the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), the proposed high-speed trains would only need one-third of the energy required by an airplane and one-fifth of trip by car per passenger mile.


Paul Langan is founder of the advocacy group High Speed Rail Canada. “Atmospheric emissions contributing to the greenhouse gas effect would be greatly reduced by the introduction of HSR,” he says.  “A study put out by the 1995 Federal/Ontario/Quebec government High Speed Rail Project states that by the year 2025, annual emissions of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide related to travel between the cities in the Windsor – Quebec City corridor would drop by 35% with the introduction of 300 km/h technology.”

The CO2 savings seem to be particularly true of trips covered by short-haul flights, such as Seattle – Vancouver or Calgary – Edmonton, since an enormous amount of energy is needed to get hulking metal planes into the air. Eurostar operates high-speed trains between London and other European cities, by way of the Channel Tunnel. The company’s independent research demonstrates that a passenger who flies from London to Paris generates 10 times more carbon dioxide than one who rides on a high-speed train. Current estimates about the 10 HSR lines that Obama proposes, chock the total emissions savings up to 6 billion pounds of CO2 per year, since there would be 29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights.


As oil prices spiked last summer and major airlines started adding fuel surcharges, an increasing number of Canadians were driven to the rails. VIA Rail recorded a 10 percent jump in ridership from the previous year and increased revenue of $14 million. As accessible oil supplies dwindle, the trend is likely to become more acute, especially if passengers can get from Toronto to Montreal in two hours by train as opposed to five. According to an environmental-impact study put forward by the CHSRA, California's proposed system will save 12.7 million barrels of oil by 2030 by reducing air and auto travel.

But, such a system will not come without its share of costs. Building HSR in Canada will require substantial private and public sector funding. In California, the bill for the proposed San Diego – San Francisco network is estimated at $40 billion. Still, authorities say this is little compared with the $100 billion that would otherwise be spent to expand airports and roads. And with a projected fare for an LA – San Francisco trip of $55 USD, many autophiles may very well ditch their wheels.


In France and Japan, HSR enjoys an extremely high safety record. Says Langan: “High-speed rail when implemented reduces the amount of autos on the road and there is therefore a corresponding reduction in the number of accidents.” With an estimated 40 percent of HSR riders being former auto users, Langan says the reduction in fatalities, especially along icy wintertime corridors could be greatly reduced.  

“It has been 28 years since the TGV was launched in France in1981. France currently has 1,500 kilometers of high-speed railway lines and a fleet of 400 high-speed TGV trains. These trains carry over 900 million passengers a year. They have a 100% safety record and have never had any fatalities,“ he says.


With the economy being what it is, economic stimulus is on a lot of politician’s minds. Dean Del Mastro, Conservative MP for Peterborough, Ontario, is a big proponent for HSR in the Toronto – Montreal corridor and he believes the construction of such lines could provide jobs especially in a time when manufacturing sectors in Ontario and Quebec are really hurting. Proposition 1A, the bill that passed in California laying the way for the construction of the country’s first HSR line is estimated to create 160,000 construction-related jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs. Just think what it could mean to the economy in the birthplace of Bombardier.