Ontario high-speed rail study was rushed ahead of election

A third-party consultant commissioned by Ontario's Liberal government to prepare a report on a possible high-speed rail link between Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and London, Ont., rushed its work, according to the report's lead author.

Consultants calls Toronto-Kitchener-London line 'unusually easy'

Current Ontario transportation minister Steven Del Duca, left, and former Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray, right. Both ministers have touted a high-speed rail link in Southern Ontario. (, R: Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

A third-party consultant commissioned by Ontario's Liberal government to prepare a report on a possible high-speed rail link between Toronto, Kitchener and London, Ont., rushed its work.

So much so, according to documents obtained by CBC News, that the report's lead author didn't have time to examine the entire proposed route in person and relied on Google Earth images.

The pre-feasibility report was prepared by First Class Partnerships, a transportation consulting firm based in London, U.K. Its findings were frequently cited ahead of the June 12 provincial election by then-transportation minister Glen Murray, who said the high-speed train would whisk people from Toronto to London in 71 minutes. 

We did in 2 weeks what normally take what would normally take 3-4 months, at a considerably higher [cost].- Michael Schabas, partner, First Class Partnerships

In a shorter report that followed the initial high speed rail report, consultant Michael Schabas wrote that "normally I would walk or drive the entire route."

Instead it appears he relied in part on Google Earth, which he says comes with "the caveat that not everything is marked, and some of the imagery is five years old and will not show recent developments."

Based on his information, Schabas writes that "overall, this looks to be an unusually easy route for a high-speed rail line, about as easy as you can get, in fact, both in terms of construction, and community and environmental impacts."

The partially redacted documents obtained by CBC News as the result of a freedom of information request include:

  • A 51-page pre-feasibility report dated March 11, 2014.
  • An 11-page additional report focusing on community and environmental impacts, dated March 18, 2014.
  • An invoice from FCP to the MTO, dated March 31, 2014 and a email about the invoice, dated May 18, 2014.

The release of the documents come as current Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca formally announced an environmental assessment for a high speed rail link between Toronto and Windsor would begin in January. Extending a high speed rail line to Windsor was not part of the scope of the report commissioned by the government earlier this year.

Work done between February and March

According to an invoice submitted to the Ontario government in May, FCP charged $115,000 for work on the high speed rail report and on a report about an expanded GO Regional Express Rail service, which would increase train frequency and speeds on existing lines. 

In the email accompanying the invoice, Schabas wrote that the main high speed rail report and the GO report were completed in about four weeks, beginning in February of this year.

He also states in the email, however, that "we did in two weeks what would normally take three-four months, at a considerably higher [cost]." He added they were able to do this "mostly by drawing on our own experience," and does not specify exactly what work was done in those two weeks.

The ministry didn't directly address why Schabas suggested the study might have been conducted quickly.

Instead, a ministry spokesperson issued a statement Tuesday night saying, "Similar for all consultant reports, the Ministry evaluates the information contained within it. The report in question is a pre-feasibility study. We will be following an environmental assessment process that uses best practices to complete the technical studies that will help Ontario to identify a service plan and route for high speed rail in the Toronto to Windsor corridor."

Details of high speed rail link emerge

The reports obtained by CBC News outline a number of scenarios for the construction and route of the line. It makes a number of other observations and recommendations that could affect specific Ontario locations:

  • Between 150 and 200 farm fields near Kitchener and London could be severed by a proposed high speed rail line.
  • Somewhere between 20 and 50 businesses could potentially need to be displaced in order to make room for a high speed rail station in downtown Kitchener.
  • The March 11 report recommends a direct route through downtown Guelph. The March 18 report recommends skipping Guelph entirely to keep costs down and shorten the length of the route. Instead the route would cut south of the city, through the Niagara Escarpment across a quarry. 
  • A suggested transfer station could be built near Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto to facilitate access to Pearson International Airport.
  • Approximately 20 houses in Georgetown may need to have their backyards appropriated during construction in order to widen the rail lines, but the land would be returned once construction is finished.
  • Fewer than 25 homes and farm buildings could be demolished, depending on the route selection.
  • The report and addendum did not address expanding the rail line to Windsor.
  • Several routes are proposed into London, and two overpass bridges along the final stretch of the route are suggested for Egerton and Rectory streets. 

In addition to detailed information about route selection and the effects on various communities, the FCP report also reveals details about costs, project ridership and fare information.

FCP assumes that by 2025, six million passengers would ride the high speed trains annually, and pay on average $43 a ride. However, tickets could rise as high as $189 for a premium business-class ticket during peak demand periods. 

The infrastructure cost of a high-speed rail link between London, Kitchener and Toronto is estimated to be $2.5 billion in the March 11 report, but it's not clear what is included in that cost. Other information about estimated revenue and expenses, as well as annual operating costs, is redacted. 

That report also estimates an average cited trip time of 71 minutes between London and Toronto, and 48 minutes between Kitchener and Toronto, travel times that were touted by Murray during the election campaign. 

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