Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit,”

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The title is a direct quote from Yves Desjardins-Siciliano who is the CEO of VIA Rail. The story comes from the Huffington Post citing the Financial Post and the Windsor Star. It sets out the case for a separate passenger only railway between Toronto and Montreal, which would significantly increase the speed and reliability of rail service but would not be as expensive a full blown High Speed Rail (HSR). Given the financial position of VIA, and the nature of the demand in the corridor, this proposal would be Good Enough. HSR is a good example of the best being the enemy of the good.  It has been studied extensively – I worked on one such study as a consultant back in the 1990’s – and so far nothing has been done in terms of improving VIA rail’s current service or winning people back to rail from short distance air or driving. It did surprise me, when I first came to Canada, that intercity buses were often faster than passenger trains.

It pains me a little that electrification is still seen as a dispensable option but actually I have to admit that a modern diesel electric locomotive  can be very energy efficient. I just happen to think that since Ontario has done such a good job of getting rid of its coal fired power stations, the greenhouse gas reduction argument should be given much more weight. There are also a couple of considerable advantages of an electric train. First, electric trains can climb much better than diesels: they don’t weigh nearly as much, as they don’t have to carry the generator or the fuel. So lines purpose built for modern electric trains can have steeper grades, and often that means they can be straighter, which also helps increase speeds. Secondly, the energy used in braking can be captured and returned to the power supply line for the the use of other trains. Regenerative braking captures a lot of the energy that is otherwise lost as heat. Electric trains can also decelerate and accelerate much better than diesels, so dealing with intermediate stops is not such an issue in overall travel time. I would hope that the design of intermediate stations would permit fast trains to pass stationary ones, so that even if it is not actual HSR, there could still be some non-stop service between the two major centres, to improve  competitiveness with air. However, given the way that the population is distributed across sprawling suburbs, centre to centre may not be the most important tool to attract traffic. Large Park and Ride lots, on the other hand, will be essential.

I have not seen any of the analysis that VIA has used to come up with the costs of its proposed separate line compared to a HSR, but there has to be a lot in common between the two. Land costs will be very similar, I think. It also seems sensible to eliminate level crossings – and to fence the entire line – just to increase safety.  You have to do that for HSR, but if those components were omitted for a conventional speed line that might explain some of the price difference.  While I am in favour of getting the costs down, this would seem to me to be very hard to defend when it comes to public consultation.



Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2015 at 8:20 am

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  1. A fascinating post, Stephen.

    It’s obvious that Canada will need HSR in future, perhaps by mid-century. That may be hard to visualize now that the high price of oil high has evaporated and personal vehicle sales have climbed while the airlines enjoy a reprieve in higher fuel costs. Though there now is an oil glut caused by lower demand in China, higher production of US shale oil and steady-on production in Saudi Arabia, those who have looked at the issue of peak oil know that the story of oil prices, supply and demand represents significant economic volatility. This entire situation is about to get more complicated as better efforts are made internationally to put a price on carbon and to start incrementally decarbonizing local, regional and globalized economies. It may actually start snowballing once the massive economic prospects of clean energy and building more appropriate urban densities are realized, and fossil fuels therein relegated to the sidelines. Rail transportation is one of the most important elements in this initiative.

    Canada is sparsely populated compared to Europe and Asia where significant strides in HSR have been made. Distance and geography will work against us. Therefore, it seems reasonable to start with intermediate steps before reaching a fully separated HSR corridor from Vancouver to Halifax. It will be expensive, but a series of rail-building projects, if managed by the federal government, will have the advantage of tagging along with powerful negotiating potential to lower private sector unit costs in massive procurement contracts.

    Canada may well afford only one corridor, considering the stupendous cost of tunneling through several BC and Alberta mountain ranges and the Canadian Shield, which will obviously have to be phased and take decades to complete. One has to imagine a series of Gotthard Base Tunnels between Hope and Banff. Although I do not favour P3s, in a group of projects as large and costly as these tunnels, perhaps the longest in the world, serious consideration will have to be given to the private sector to build them and lease them back to VIA Rail, the post office and private courier companies, and paid for with a 35 to 50-year tunnel debt surcharge on each ticket and bill of lading. One day the debt will be paid off and future generations would enjoy a sudden reduction in the cost of a ticket, and once hundreds of millions of trips are taken each year, the entire system may actually earn a tidy profit. Oil will be long forgotten.

    The high costs likely mean that one national HSR line will feed many intercity commuter lines designed for a variety of speeds, and that the less quick intercity function may well dominate both for some time. The VIA Rail CEO may have recognized this and is seeking an intermediate step toward a larger goal. The $10 billion Toronto-Montreal rail corridor estimate isn’t unmanageable considering that is roughly the cumulative cost of recent Metro Vancouver freeways including the proposed Massey Bridge, not including debt servicing. This very reasonable capital outlay could be publicly compared to the cost of roads and airports to provide the public and the government the appropriate context for making a decision. In addition, the likely provincial and possibly Metro contributions will reduce the federal burden significantly. Still, a project like this will have many critics over the entire process.

    HSR on the longest and straightest stretches should be able to sustain speeds of 350 km/h in all but the most severe weather conditions. Intercity rail should be able to similarly sustain speeds of 250 km/h in the best conditions in limited locations, slower in severe weather conditions. All crossings need to be grade-separated except for the slowest sections of intercity rail. Freight traffic should be able to share certain intercity lines under strict co-ordination through the most advanced signaling and communication networks. All infrastructure must be exceedingly resilient and designed to last because there is no guarantee the world and Canadian economies will allow major replacement programs in future, especially if we don’t learn to diversify away from exporting raw resources and start building up financial services, manufacturing and tech industries.

    The development of both high speed and intercity rail corridors should be designed to accommodate long distance high voltage DC transmission lines to allow linkages between provincial smart power grids that will enable clean, emissions-free electricity to be traded or exported across the continent at the speed of light, therein permitting provincial power utilities to buy in and further reduce the cost of land acquisition and corridor infrastructure. Zero-emission electricity should be the only energy source for rail.

    It so happens Sweden conducted a major needs and preferences study on its national rail infrastructure and worked with Bombardier to develop what they call the Grona Taget (Green Train), a train that meets the “…. vehicle dynamics, carbody tilt, energy consumption, winter climate reliability, aerodynamics and acoustics, among other things. Also market needs, capacity and economics, as well as passenger issues ….” Bombardier responded by redeveloping their Regina platform to include very high recyclability, longevity and low maintenance by using stainless steel car bodies, and all the other features Stephen lists plus a few more, notably gains in energy efficiency. The Regina was purchased by Sweden’s SJ rail company for its high-speed mainlines (which are not quite as fast as other European lines), but it seems to me it will also make a great intercity and regional train too (e.g. commuter rail to Chilliwack and Whistler and beyond, as well as Vancouver Island), notably by designing an extra-wide (3.45 m) car body to accommodate various seating configurations, including 5-seat rows for maximum capacity routes, economy pricing and revenue return. One thing I noticed is that n ot every door is accessible. Universal accessiblity should be a key design feature of every train and station in the country, and that means configuring standard station platforms to be level with the train platforms, up and down escalators, and adequate numbers of elevators.

    Click to access GronaTaget_eng16p.pdf

    The HSR corridor should be developed for 100% grade separation and 350 km/h speeds from the start, even though the Regina intercity platform would be used intitially perhaps in 6-car trainsets at maximum speed of 250 km/h. Once a good part of the network has been up and running and people are accustomed to the superior city centre-to-city centre service and comfort, then HSR rolling stock such as Bombardier’s Zephiro, Siemens ICE trains or Alstom’s AGV can be introduced with much public applause because a known good experience will then become a great experience, and will attract many more passengers frmo across the continent. The Regina stock can then be transferred en masse to the adjoining intercity networks, with a similar boost in travelling experience and quality of service.

    I see intercity rail as a multi-faceted, graduated entity. Two-car Regina trainsets would suffice initially in places like Vancouver Island and between medium and small cities and towns. Alternatively, 6+-car trainsets would join cities like Calgary and Edmonton with the national east-west HSR station in Calgary. Likewise, similar longer trains could serve the Yellowhead route (CN’s Winnipeg to Prince Rupert) for decades before a decison is made to convert it to another HSR corridor, at least as far as Edmonton.

    It’s not hard to imagine this train run by Sweden’s SJ railway company rolling through the Canadian countryside and into the heart of every major city and town and connecting to a national HSR line.


    November 13, 2015 at 3:20 pm

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