high-speed rail versus highways

Now that the latest Ontario High-Speed Rail proposal has come out, we are getting the usual Serious Journalism about rail.  Which means some combination of intentional and unintentional concern trolling about rail, particularly around costs (call it “concern costing”).  A particular attribute of this kind of analysis is it always looks at rail in isolation as a standalone service, as if decades of subsidizing driving didn’t exist.

Here’s what a better comparison of Ontario high-speed rail versus highways that included more context might look like:

Measurement High-Speed Rail Highways
Est. deaths over 10 years 0 3000
Est. injuries over 10 years ~0 30,000
Est. expenditure over 10 years $20 billion? $26 billion
Est. direct revenue over 10 years ? $0

So just to be clear, spending $26 billion on roads to get zero revenue and kill 3000 people is a no brainer, but spending maybe $20 billion on rail to get some unknown millions in revenue and kill zero people needs Very Serious Analysis.

Estimated deaths over 10 years is from Ontario road deaths: Did drivers do better or worse in 2015? It applies to highways under OPP jurisdiction. Estimated injuries is just a direct 10x scaling of deaths.

Estimated highway expenditure is from Ontario budget 2017, at the bottom of Investing in Highway Infrastructure.

No one really knows yet how much the train will cost, or how much revenue it will bring in.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t examine the viability of High-Speed Rail. I’m just saying we should place it in context with our expenditures on highways. If you’re not asking the exact same questions about highway “viability”, then it’s not a level playing field.  If you’re not talking about the fact that you’re introducing HSR into an environment where driving has been massively subsidised on multiple fronts, including cost of gas, cost of highways and cost of parking, then it’s not a level playing field.

high-speed rail in Canada

High-speed rail has been extensively studied in Canada.  The latest study There was a joint Federal-Ontario-Quebec investigation in 2011.  The links below are all to the same 2011 “EcoTrain” report, just distributed from the websites of the three different partners.

UPDATE 2017-05-19: In typical web fashion, all the links from 2013 were broken and gone with no trail to follow to find where they might have been relocated.  I have added new links where possible.

Available from Ontario MTO: English, French

Update – Ontario MTO English (from Internet Archive)

Available from Transports Québec: English, French (site also includes 1995 study of the same corridor)

Update – Transports Québec: French

Update – Transports Québec: Quebec-Ontario High Speed Rail Project, Preliminary Routing Assessment and Costing Study, Final Report, March 1995 (PDF)

Sort-of-kinda available (requires you to request full report via email) from Transport Canada: English press release, English “Executive Summary”, French PR, French Exec Summary

Update – Transport Canada: English press release, English “Executive Summary”, French Exec Summary (from Internet Archive)

There is also a Library of Parliament summary HillNote Number 2012-06E “High-Speed Rail in Canada” (also available in French “Le train à grande vitesse au Canada“)

and Wikipedia has a page of course: High-speed rail in Canada

There have also been separate studies of other corridors, including Montreal-New York and Montreal-Boston (PDF, via Transports Québec)

We are not understudied in this area.  But no one wants to spend any money.

Toronto to Montreal

The bottom line of the 2011 study: “Developing the section between Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto could cost between $9.1 billion for 200 km/h and $11 billion for 300 km/h” and “as a whole, the Montréal-Toronto segment of the project would provide a positive economic impact“.

Nine billion is not a lot of money for HSR connecting Toronto to Montreal, particularly considering you get a net positive economic impact (you get more back overall in the economy than you spend to build the infrastructure).

For the two speed options, which in the study are E300+ (electric, 300+km/h) and F200+ the specific dollar figures are $869 million net benefit and $817 million respectively, and that’s counting as “losses” the reduction in revenue to airlines and airports (report page S-21).


And that is with modal shares I consider ridiculous. At 300km/h, the modal share for business travel in 2031 would be 17%? Seriously? In 2031, 72% of business people are going to choose to drive rather than go 300km/h in first class on a train? (from page 58 of the EcoTrain report)


This is in a world where today, Amtrak’s “high-speed” train (which only goes an average 120km/h, with a top speed of 240km/h) and its much slower regular train service together get seventy-five percent of the Washington-New York modal share.

In other words, even with ridiculously low modal shares and even inexplicably counting the diversion of traffic from airlines as a “loss”, Toronto-Montreal HSR still has a net positive benefit.

But no one will build it.  All it would take is some outreach to external funding sources (Chinese government? Richard Branson?) and some political will.  We have neither.

This post inspired in part by Tyler Brule in the Financial TimesMaple leaves on the line (April 26, 2013).  Brule manages to say things like “Have neither the government nor the private sector ever thought about the economic benefits?” without mentioning any of the Canadian political context or any of the multiple studies (including repeated studies of the Quebec-Windsor corridor).

UPDATE 2013-05-02: I left a comment on Mr. Brule’s article.  Here is the text in full:

Mr. Brule makes excellent points about high-speed rail (HSR): convenient for getting from city centre to city centre and more convenient than flying for short distances.  However his question “Have neither the government nor the private sector ever thought about the economic benefits?” is somewhat puzzling in the Canadian context.  The Quebec-Windsor corridor has been extensively studied for HSR, with the most recent report released in 2011.  A copy of the report is available at e.g. Transports Québec: http://www.mtq.gouv.qc.ca/portal/page/portal/entreprises_en/transport_ferroviaire/thv_quebec_windsor

Key findings: the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal route (the specific route that would have provided HSR for Mr. Brule’s trip to Ottawa) would cost $9.1 billion for 200km/h service and $11 billion for 300km/h service, and in both cases the investment produces an overall net positive economic benefit.  Other routes such as Montreal to New York have also been analyzed (available on the Transports Québec site).

What is needed is not more study of the economic benefits, instead what is missing is political will and private sector interest.  Perhaps Richard Branson or other transportation entrepreneurs are needed, in order to invest in this well-documented opportunity to improve Canadian inter-city travel options.