Back on track: North America needs high-speed passenger rail

Not every problem has a clear solution.  Here’s one that does.  The problem is the exponential growth in air travel and attendant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  The solution is high-speed passenger rail.

Compared to airplanes, high-speed trains can move people faster, more comfortably and conveniently, more cheaply, and with a fraction of the GHG emissions.  And Canada is uniquely placed to benefit from a passenger-rail renaissance; one of the world’s largest passenger-rail manufacturers, Bombardier, is a Canadian company.

Air travel is increasing exponentially.  As I detailed in a previous blog post, air travelers now rack up about 7 trillion passenger-kilometres per year.  And that figure is projected to double by 2030.  If we are to retain a tolerable climate, most of the planes will soon need to be grounded, excepting perhaps those used for trans-oceanic flights.

While airplanes may remain our best option for crossing oceans, within continents higher-speed rail (130–200 km/h) and high-speed rail (200+ km/h) can move people faster and more comfortably.  Such trains can transport passengers from city-centre to city-centre, eliminating the long drive to the airport.  Trains do not require time-consuming, invasive airport security screenings.  These factors, combined with high speeds, mean that for many trips, the total travel time is lower for trains than for planes.  And because trains have much more leg-room and often include observation cars, restaurants, and lounges, they are much more comfortable and enjoyable.

Many people will know the Eurostar high-speed line that connects Paris and other European cities to London via the Channel Tunnel.  Top speed for that train is 320 km/h.  A trip from downtown London to Downtown Paris—nearly 500 kms—takes 2 hours and 20 minutes, about the time it takes the average North American to drive to the airport, check in, check baggage, clear security, and get to his or her airplane seat.

China recently inaugurated its Shanghai Maglev line, with a maximum speed of 430km/h and average speed of 250 km/h.  Japan’s famous “bullet trains” went into service more than 50 years ago.  They now travel on a network of 2,764 kms of track and reach speeds of 320 km/h.

North America has one high-speed line, the Acela Express that links Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. The maximum speed is 240 km/h, through average speeds are lower.  Travel time from New York to Washington is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including time spent at intermediate stops: an average speed of 132 km/h.  The Acela Express trains were built by a consortium 75 percent owned by Canada’s Bombardier.

This brings us to the truly good news: Canada is home to a world-leading passenger rail manufacturer, Bombardier.  You will find the company’s rolling stock in the subways of New York, London, and more than a dozen other cities.  Its intercity trains run throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  And its high-speed trains are currently moving passengers in China, Europe, and the US.  Until a recent merger of two Chinese companies, Canada’s Bombardier was the largest passenger train manufacturer in the world.  Canada has a huge opportunity to create jobs and economic activity while leading the world in low-emission, cutting-edge rail technology.  As climate change forces Canada to scale back fossil-fuel production and maybe even auto manufacturing, Canada will need new economic engines.  Passenger-rail manufacturing can be an economic engine of the future.

Not all the news is good, however.  Many will have recent heard news reports about Bombardier.  Over the past few years, Federal and provincial governments have provided cash injections to the company totaling more than a billion dollars, largely to cover costs on its C-Series passenger-jet program.  Bombardier is in trouble.  Indeed, it may have made one of the biggest business blunders in recent decades: financially imperiling a world-leading train maker to make a huge gamble on planes just as climate change forces us to ground the planes and build a trillion-dollar passenger rail system.  Bombardier has recently announced that it may merge its train division with the German company Siemens.

Bombardier has been foolish.  Canadian citizens and their governments have been equally foolish: handing over billions of taxpayer dollars and not receiving a single passenger train in return.  But we can be smart.  That means building a North American network of fast trains.  Bombardier can prosper by being one of the main suppliers for that network.  High-speed passenger rail can be a win-win-win: jobs for Canadians and Americans; fast, comfortable travel; and a high-tech, low-emission transportation system on this continent like the ones being built in Europe and Asia.

The graph at the top of this article shows average per-person passenger-train utilization.  The data is from the most recent year available: 2014 or ’15.  Passenger rail utilization rates in Canada and the US (an average of less than 40 kms per person per year) are among the lowest in the world.  In China, average use is more than 800 kms per person per year and rising very rapidly.  In many European nations, it is more than 1,000 kms per year per person—25 to 30 times the Canadian and US rates.  There is huge growth potential for the passenger rail sector in North America.

Graph sources: OECD.


3 Replies to “Back on track: North America needs high-speed passenger rail”

  1. How effective is high-speed train service, given that our population tends to be spread out? Is this something that ViaRail could consider in the Southern ON/QU area only? But wouldn’t that require establishing a whole new rail infrastructure, while ViaRail tends to use CN/CP lines, where they have to give precedence to freight service? Producing the rail cars is only part of the necessary infrastructure. Right-of-way, or new, duplicate rail lines would be another component. Also; the countries where this seems to work best seem to be very compact and high in population. Would high speed rail really work in places like the Canadian Prairies?

    1. Thanks, Sadie. Good questions. Here are some quick answers. Step one is to get medium-speed trains (120-150kmh) running everywhere. That is possible on existing lines or new dedicated lines. Next would be to build high-speed lines linking major cities, such as Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal as well as Calgary and Edmonton. We tie in these Canadian medium- and high-speed lines to US lines (including their high-speed lines) so I can easily travel from, say, Saskatoon to Los Angeles or Chicago. And though we probably wouldn’t do this next step, even a transcontinental high-speed line is affordable. Studies show that the average cost of high-speed track (dedicated roadbeds, welded rails, controlled crossings, overpasses, etc.) is very roughly $34.5 million per mile. At that rate, a trans-Canada bullet train would cost $130 billion. A lot of money, but coincidentally almost exactly the amount of federal government infrastructures spending over coming years. Again, we wouldn’t link Winnipeg to Regina to Edmonton via high-speed rail, but we could afford to do so I we made that choice. As a better alternative, building a transcontinental medium-speed railway (average speeds approaching 130 kmh; no pulling over for freight trains) would cost tens-of-billions, not hundreds.

      1. So, you are advocating separate, dedicated, medium-speed passenger rail service to most parts of the country, with dedicated high-speed service between highly populated centers? Am I correct? What about how this could impact (a very deteriorated) bus network, as it presently exists? Some communities would still be too small to service with trains, and people would need a way of getting from there to the train hub. Is that something that would have to be considered in order to cut down on personal vehicles, or further urban drift?

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