High-speed rail – a political zombie that just won’t give up the ghost – got trotted out again this week, one of an endless string of announcements from Kathleen Wynne’s government as we grow nearer to a provincial election. As always, the timing is purely coincidental.
The announcement that former federal minister David Collenette will head Ontario’s high-speed rail planning advisory board has the added bonus of tossing out a few partisan plums.
This is but the latest in the decades-old discussion of a high-speed link running along the Windsor to Quebec City corridor, though the province is looking at the Toronto-Windsor line. The stated goal is having trains running at 250 km/h – not fast by global definitions of high-speed trains, but certainly much faster than anything we have today – to reduce the four-hour travel time by half.
It’s a fine idea in theory. At least for the section between Kitchener and Toronto, and maybe as far west as London. It’s in that nearby stretch that a fast train would serve as an alternative to the horrendous 401 commute to the GTA.
Again, in theory. To be useful, a train between the region and downtown Toronto would have to be fast (45 minutes or less), convenient (running at least twice an hour, all day) and cheap. None of those is likely, meaning that car still trumps train for many people.
In order to be useful and, thus, attract riders, public transit has to be some combination of faster, more convenient and cheaper than making the trip by car. For people commuting to Toronto, some transit alternatives currently make sense. That’s not at all true for the region’s version of train service, which will never be the choice of those who can choose … when it eventually starts running. Given that few will ride it, people won’t forego their cars and the headaches are already legion, the LRT scheme was, is and will continue to be a bad investment.
The same is not true, however, for good train service linking the region to Toronto. Which is why Wynne keeps trotting out promises about GO Transit and high-speed rail, though rarely delivering anything tangible.
As it stands, GO Transit services, trains and buses, remain fairly lightly used, largely because they fail to meet the all-important criteria of fast, convenient and cheap. There is hope that improvements could change that situation, however, unlike the LRT boondoggle.
Even the train isn’t faster than driving most of the time. It can be more convenient, depending on a commuter’s destination. Cheaper? Barring outrageous parking fees, anything government-run or regulated won’t ever be cost effective. Real efforts will have to be made to speed up the service and to price it attractively enough to lure not just daily commuters, but for a family making a jaunt to see a Blue Jays game, for example.
Imagine, if you will, travelling from the region to Union Station in Toronto in, say, 45 minutes (hardly high speed) for a fraction of the price of gas and parking, and without any of the delays and stress of driving on the 401. That’s a service that would prompt many to leave their cars at home.
Nothing like that has seeped into the worst nightmares of transit planners now dropping crumbs instead of something the public would actually embrace, to the consternation of critics.
On the upside, the province’s plan will likely never see the light of day, unlike the money flushed away in the region.