The Ontario government has formally announced the process for the build of a High-Speed Rail (HSR) system for Southwestern Ontario. The recent Ontario budget provided for an $11 billion investment for Phase One, which would connect London and Toronto by 2025.
The full High-Speed Rail line would eventually be completed to Windsor for a construction cost of $21 billion. The 250 km/h train would be part of an expanded public transit system including a GO Regional Express Rail (RER) project to expand two-way service across the GO rail network. A number of GO’s current lines only operate into Toronto in the morning and return in the afternoon.
Fast, efficient and cost-effective public transportation is vital to both rural and urban Ontario. Improved rail transportation is one piece of a comprehensive, integrated transportation system for all of Ontario.
OFA calls for a comprehensive analysis of costs and benefits of the High-Speed Rail proposal including all costs to rural residents, communities, and farm businesses to determine the viability of High Speed Rail in Ontario; including, but not limited to;
- the impacts of a fenced High-Speed Rail line on wildlife, natural heritage and biodiversity,
- the social and economic impacts of a fenced High-Speed Rail corridor physically dividing SW Ontario,
- the impacts for communities across southwestern Ontario not near or on the High-Speed Rail line; further losses to VIA service and lost opportunities for local economic and population growth (Producing Prosperity in Ontario)
High-Performance Rail operates at speeds below 177 km/h. Transport Canada regulations prohibit all level crossings at speeds over 177 km/h (roads, highways and farm crossings).
The OFA is highly skeptical that the proposed High-Speed Rail concept will provide sustainable, effective, and efficient transportation with any net benefit for Ontarians. For rural and small-towns it downloads all the associated problems, with none of the ascribed benefits. OFA is calling for a comprehensive analysis of costs and benefits of High-Speed Rail and the alternative High-Performance Rail (HPR) proposal including all costs and benefits applicable to rural residents, communities, and farm businesses.
The concept of High-Speed Rail, Phase One, is to enable people to travel quickly between London, Kitchener-Waterloo (KW), Guelph and Toronto. In effect, the concept perpetuates and accelerates Ontario’s move to a commuting society with Toronto as the destination for all economic activity. The end result is completely contrary to the principles of distributed economic development proposed by OFA and endorsed by provincial politicians. It also contradicts the recently revised (July 1, 2017) Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GPGGH), that requires urban growth to support the achievement of “complete communities”.
The GPGGH describes complete communities as places where people can live, work, play, and shop all within close proximity, reducing the need to travel long distances. HSR is contrary policy to the complete community’s principle.
The HSR is estimated to provide a benefit of $20 billion over a 60-year span. This value of benefits arises from monetizing:
- Reduced travel times
- Lower automobile operating costs
- Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and
- Reduced congestion
Travel times have been compared for station stops for HSR versus automobile travel. For example, the Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) to Toronto time is estimated at 48 minutes versus the automobile time of 72 minutes. Likewise, KW to London is 25 versus 46 minutes. It is unclear, but this analysis may not account for the fact that the distance to HSR station stops increases significantly versus GO or passenger rail services now in effect.
It is not known if the estimated benefits account for increased automobile travel time and cost to get to an HSR stop. HSR stops are proposed at 50 to 100 Km. distance compared to 15-30 and 30-50 for passenger rail and GO, respectively.
Regardless, the estimated 60-year benefit of $20 billion does not compare favourably to the shorter-term investment of $21 billion (to 2031), assuming there are no cost overruns.
The announcement of the HSR project notes that Canada is the only G7 nation without a high-speed rail system. It fails to note that only two such systems in the world are profitable. The Tokyo – Osaka and the Paris – Lyon runs are self-sufficient. These lines join communities with combined populations of 32 million and 12.7 million people, respectively. In addition, several million tourists use the routes each year. The Tokyo – Osaka line serves over 150 million passengers per year. At peak it runs 13 trains per hour in both directions with 3-minute gaps.
The population in the Toronto – Windsor service area corridor is 7 million.
The first phase is the development of the Terms of Reference (ToR), which will guide the Environmental Assessment (EA). Simply put, the ToR will determine what will be considered through the EA process. Anything not included in the ToR will be “off limits” for EA discussions.
More detailed cost estimates are required through the Environmental Assessment process. Costs need to include all impacts including cost of operating subsidies, land expropriation costs, impacts of reduced crossings including municipal costs of crossing and/or school and emergency services realignment, costs to farms, etc.
The EA is in design phase. Although the government’s messaging indicates the Terms of Reference for the EA includes an approach to “an assessment of alternatives”. The same messaging includes that the government is “starting work on a number of fronts to deliver HSR” (emphasis added).
Generally, the service area for the HSR proposal would agree that fast and efficient public transportation is important. However, consideration of costs versus benefits and, in particular, the costs of the impact on rural communities, farms and municipalities leads to calls for a thorough review of alternatives.
Several municipalities have put forward motions to call for a thorough review of other possible rail options as part of the EA. Specifically, high-performance rail (HPR) is noted as requiring consideration. The high-performance rail concept involves doubling tracks on existing infrastructure. It would include dedicated passenger and freight lines and travel up to 176 km/h allowing for the retention of level and farm crossings. It would preserve existing VIA Rail service. In effect, the potential cost and damage to farms and communities would be avoided.