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Go Fast to Go Slow

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

In a May 2023 article, Chris Selley made the case that high-speed rail would be a boondoggle. In his article he cited a study by David Collenette estimated a high-speed line between Windsor and Toronto would cost $67 Billion. He rightly pointed out that this estimate was absurd but (as we shall see) for the wrong reasons.

The geography between Toronto and Windsor is mostly flat, empty rural land, similar to the geography of the rest of the corridor. I was puzzled as to how an estimate so high could be derived, one that would have cost $180 M per km, rivalling California’s botched project.

It turns out, the study had some ‘interesting’ design assumptions. One of them was that an 18-km long tunnel should be built through Mississauga and Brampton to accommodate trains going at 300 kph.

Looking at a map, it becomes apparent that building a tunnel here is a really dumb idea. Most of it is a flat, straight rail corridor. If you are wondering about that curve to the lower right, I estimate that trains could travel over it at about 230 kph (assuming that it is still shared with freight). To gain that extra 70 kph, you would likely have to spend billions extra, all just to save a few seconds. It makes absolutely no sense.

You may think that I’m quibbling over details, but it’s sloppy studies like this that poison the well and lead to the kind of dismissive attitudes towards high-speed rail embodied in Selley’s article.

Rail doesn’t have to be exorbitant if we know where to go fast and where to go slow. The lesson here is that it doesn’t make sense for high-speed rail to go fast everywhere. If our high-speed train shouldn’t go fast everywhere, how fast should it go and where should it go fast?

How Fast?

To answer the question of how fast high-speed trains should go, we need to be aware of what high-speed rail is competing against, i.e. flying and driving. When it comes to flying, high-speed rail competes well with flying when the trip duration is 3 hours or less. For driving, it is tempting to think that being faster than someone in their vehicle is sufficient. However, most people’s final destinations are not located right at train stations. Drivers are able to go directly from point A to point B, whereas rail passengers need to use some form of local transportation to get to their final destination. Therefore, high-speed rail trips need to be substantially faster than driving trips in order to be competitive.

In the case of high-speed rail in Eastern Canada, the major trip that needs to be competitive is between Toronto and Montreal. Setting a target time of 3 hours between the countries two largest cities means that high-speed rail will be competitive with flying for the route that generates the greatest number of trips. Between Montreal and Quebec City, the minimum vehicle travel time is around 2.5 hours. A high-speed rail travel time of around 1.5 hours means that high-speed rail will be competitive for trips within 30 minutes of each train station.

Where Should it Go Fast?

As mentioned in a previous post, building for trains going at 300+ kph is not easy; you need straight lines and broad curves. Doing this in hilly terrain or urban areas means more costly viaducts and tunnels. Going through built-up areas brings the added complication of needing to provide sound mitigation and derailment protection. Therefore, as a general rule, where the terrain is difficult and in built-up areas, it makes sense to go slow. It also then logically follows that high-speed trains should go fast where the terrain is gentle and largely empty.

To summarize: go fast where it is easy to go fast.

If we look at a map of our rail corridor, we see that there are many long, straight corridors through relatively empty land, places where it is easy to go fast. There are also some urban sections that are surprisingly conducive for higher speeds such as the West Island of Montreal and Northeast Toronto.

However, there are also some challenging sections, most notably around Sharbot Lake between Peterborough and Ottawa. Here it makes sense to go slow and we can do this and still satisfy the 3-hour time requirement because we built up ‘time capital’ along the fast sections. In our study “Build it Right”, we recommend that high-speed trains travel at only at a maximum speed of 125 kph for most of this section. This saves a significant amount of money as building this section to 300+ kph standards would require extensive and costly capital works.

It should be mentioned that there is a cost to going fast and slow. Having trains accelerate and decelerate is less energy efficient than having them cruise at top speed. However, the slight increase in operating costs is dwarfed by the huge savings in capital costs. This difference will only grow as regenerative braking, a technology that reduces the energy loss from deceleration, becomes widespread in high-speed rail rolling stock.

Final Words

We all know the common saying “the devil is in the details”. A lack of attention to detail when researching high-speed rail here has undermined the case for it. Similarly, a lack of examination of the details has led many to lazily conclude that it isn’t viable here.

However, in the details, one can also find opportunities. If one is able to look past preconceived notions, see the ground truth and design knowing where to go fast and where to go slow, they will see that high-speed rail in Eastern Canada makes a ton of sense.

If you want to learn more about how high-speed rail can become a reality in Canada, please check out Build It Right - A Study on High-Frequency Rail/High-Speed Rail in Canada.

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