High-speed rail in Ontario, finally? Not so fast

Here are some reasons why high-speed rail hasn't taken hold yet in Ontario and the challenges that still lie ahead in getting done.

Premier Kathleen Wynne announces plan to build high-speed rail route along Toronto-Windsor corridor

China's CRH high-speed trains sit on tracks at a maintenance base in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province. Advocates say North Americans can't envision high-speed rail in their own communities unless they've travelled somewhere in Europe or Asia and have seen it for themselves. (The Associated Press)

Calls for high-speed rail in one of Canada's busiest corridors have been made before and went unanswered. Will it be any different this time?

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Friday that the province is proceeding with a plan to build a high-speed rail route stretching along the Toronto-Windsor corridor.

The announcement follows a report Ontario commissioned from David Collenette, a former federal transportation minister who was hired by the province to assess whether the speedy rail line would be feasible.

He says it is, and that Ontario should go for it. Wynne herself noted in her remarks that excuses have been made for decades, but that "we've got to do it this time."

Here are some reasons why high-speed rail hasn't taken hold yet in Ontario — and some of the challenges that lie ahead in getting done.

Political will

The proposed plan is a massive and expensive infrastructure program and politicians have preferred in the past to get elected by promising to expand highways in their ridings, rather than rail routes.

Paul Langan, from an advocacy group called High Speed Rail Canada, told CBC News that a lack of political will is a major reason why high-speed rail has never been built in Ontario.

In his report, Collenette also cites "political willingness to support the huge investment over more than one election cycle" as a factor in limiting high-speed rail development.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announces plans for a high-speed rail corridor between Toronto and Windsor. Phase one, which would see stops in Kitchener-Waterloo and London, would be completed by 2025 if the project proceeds as proposed. (Radio-Canada)

Wynne, for example, says she is committed to building the Windsor-Toronto route. But Wynne may not be premier a year from now. Ontarians go to the polls in June 2018, and the premier will be in a fight for her political life next year.

Ontario Progressive Conservatives called Friday's announcement a political ploy the Liberals will "never deliver on." Would they? Their statement didn't say.

Competition for lines

Many of southwestern Ontario's rail lines are owned and operated by Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, which are private freight companies. Passenger rail services, such as Via Rail and GO Transit — which are operated by government-affiliated bodies — have to negotiate with CN and CP to use the lines.

This map shows a proposed high-speed rail network in southern Ontario, with stops in major population hubs such as London, Kitchener, Guelph and Toronto's Pearson airport. (Ontario Ministry of Transportation)

They are businesses and they prioritize freight over passengers — and that's slowed down talk of high-speed rail on those lines in the past.

It's likely agreements with CN and CP will be required for some sections of the proposed high-speed rail route, Collenette's report says.

Planes, not trains, and automobiles

Ontarians and Canadians are accustomed to generally outdated and inefficient rail service, according to Langan. He said it's hard for many people to imagine a modern, high-speed form of transportation. Unless they've travelled somewhere in Europe or Asia and have seen it for themselves, North Americans can't envision high-speed rail.

"People just think it's futuristic," he said, even though other parts of the world have been using it for decades. Ontario, he added, is "about 50 years behind."

Demands to ease congestion on the province's highways have been louder than demands for high-speed rail. Ontario added more lanes to Highway 401 near Toronto in 2016 — and that actually led to an increase in car use and congestion rather than reduce it, according to Collenette's report.

Low-cost airlines have also provided affordable alternatives to driving or taking a train around the province or to destinations in the U.S.

Wynne said Friday that in the past arguments were made that there wasn't enough demand or high enough population to warrant a high-speed rail corridor, but that in 2017, the demand is there and that young people in particular are asking for it. The report states that the Windsor-Toronto area is seeing high levels of economic and population growth.

Not in my backyard

Opposition to big infrastructure projects that impact people's homes, properties and communities always has been and always will be a challenge for governments.

While its advocates say there are many benefits to high-speed rail, the arguments may fall on deaf ears for those whose backyards might literally have a new rail line running by it.

Collenette's report emphasizes that among the stakeholders that must be listened to are the Indigenous communities affected by the proposed route.

Time, money, regulations

These projects cost billions of dollars and take years to build. The environmental assessment alone is estimated to cost $15 million and take four years.

Ontario's plan is to build phase one connecting Toronto to London by 2025 and then phase two would extend to Windsor by 2031.

In total, the project's price tag could be in the $20-billion range, but, it depends on how much the private sector is involved and on support from the federal government. Ontario is looking to partner on the project.

The province also argues that high-speed rail could eventually yield $20 billion in economic benefits through automobile operating cost savings, reduced congestion on roads and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other economic benefits.

Trains going at more than 200 kilometres an hour need federal approval, and there will be other regulations to work through to get the project going, including the environmental assessment.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.