The secret to faster train travel in Ontario

November 28, 2015

Via Rail’s president and CEO likes to start his sales pitch with a version of a classic math question: if a freight train leaves Montreal for Toronto at 50 km/h, and an hour later a passenger train capable of travelling 170 km/h an hour leaves Montreal on the same track, when does the passenger train have to slow to a crawl behind the plodding cargo-hauler? The answer, according to Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, is “too soon, and too often.”Website Insert 5000 New Seats copy

Politicians have often floated the idea of high-speed rail – some trains in Europe and Asia can whiz by at more than 300 kilometres an hour – for the busy Windsor-to-Quebec City transportation corridor. While high-speed rail remains firmly in the “dream” category, there are less ambitious ways to make existing rail networks in Ontario faster and more reliable. And two of the country’s largest transportation companies have plans to do just that.

To speed up his trains, Desjardins-Siciliano wants Via to run its own trains on its own tracks instead of relying on rail dominated by slow-moving cargo trains. That way, it can give passengers more reliable and faster service: 15 trains per day instead of the current six, with a two and a half hour trip between Toronto and Ottawa instead of the current four (when everything goes well—which is less and less often, these days.)

“It’s really the nature of the business, and frankly a law of physics,” says Desjardins-Siciliano. “A network can only run as fast as its slowest component.”

Meanwhile, Metrolinx, the government agency charged with planning the GTA’s transit future, has plans of its own: it wants to improve service on the increasingly important Kitchener and Milton lines, where the freight cars of CN and CP Rail currently have priority over GO commuter trains along parts of the track.

Metrolinx estimates that by 2031 the number of passengers using Toronto’s Union Station hub every morning will reach 265,000 – more than four times the levels in 2006. Getting GO Trains off other companies’ freight lines is one way to accommodate that growth in riders, not least because freight traffic in the GTA is growing too.

High-speed rail it ain’t. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne’s government pledged a high-speed rail line from at least London to Toronto in the last days before the 2014 election campaign —and, when trying to hold seats in the province’s southwest during that election, including Windsor as well. The new federal Liberal government hasn’t indicated what it thinks of high-speed rail, but under former prime minister Jean Chrétien the idea was regularly proposed though never implemented.

High-speed rail, while attractive, will be expensive. Desjardins-Siciliano says Via’s plan offers two-thirds of the benefits of a full high-speed rail project, with less than half the cost: $ 4 billion instead of at least $9 billion. Via’s hope is to triple its passenger base on its busiest lines by offering a service attractive enough to take five million drivers off the road between Montreal and Toronto. A second phase could potentially connect to Waterloo and London to Quebec City.

Read the full story from writer John Michael McGrath of TVO by clicking here.


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