The Minister Muses on High Speed Rail

Suddenly London Ontario is the place to be if you’re looking for a high speed rail line. Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation & Infrastructure, has announced plans to have a high speed connection between Toronto downtown, Pearson airport, Kitchener-Waterloo and London up and running in 10 years.

Not just that, but the trains will run half-hourly with 28 trips each way daily on the line carrying, eventually, 20,000 riders per day.

I am not making this up. You can read more details on the CBC’s Kitchener-Waterloo site.

An extremely superficial document titled “Moving Ontario Forward” came my way recently, and I could not help thinking back to the early days of “GO Urban”, the technology that eventually became ICTS and Skytrain, with similarly vacuous presentations for public consumption.

The first nine pages contain:

  • Cover: St. Pancras Station in London, UK.
  • Page 2: Same shot with the report title superimposed.
  • Page 3: Beauty shot of London, Ont.
  • Page 4: Shot of a badly decayed steel mill in Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Page 5: Beauty shot of downtown, revitalized Pittsburgh today.
  • Page 6: Historical photo of construction of the CPR.
  • Page 7: “The Dawning of a New London”: London, Ontario, presumably just before dawn.
  • Page 8: Back to St. Pancras with the title “Our Plan to Move Ontario Forward”
  • Page 9: “Preface” with the text:
    • “FirstClassPartnerships, Inc. (FCP), a well-respected leader in transportation planning, was contracted by the Ministry of Transportation to develop a business case for transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and a pre-feasibility study on High Speed Rail from Toronto to London.”

Readers will remember First Class Partnerships for their work on the review of Metrolinx plans published by the Neptis Foundation. FCP’s website presents the company as having significant influence in the GTHA’s transit plans.

Now we finally get into the meat, although it’s a scrawny bird.

Page 10: Summary: Concept

  • 17 million intercity trips per year in Toronto – London corridor, and demand keeps growing
  • Today, travel is overwhelmingly by car, on 401
  • Bus and rail each have only 3% – 5 %
  • In corridors with similar population, density, car ownership and incomes, High Speed Rail is commercially viable

Page 11 asks: “Has the time come to bring High Speed Rail to Ontario?”

Page 12 answers in large, red, boldface letters: “YES!”

Page 13 has a map.


Note that from about Georgetown to east of Kitchener, and for most of the distance between KW and London, the line would run in a new corridor (pink) while the existing route (green east of KW, orange to the west) would be left as is.

Page 14: Summary: Key Findings

By 2025, it would attract about 6 million passengers per year

  • About three-quarters of passengers would be “diverted”, with 20,000 car trips taken off 401 each day
  • Fare revenues would repay most capital investment with a net cost to government of about $500m
  • While High Speed Rail would directly serve only London and Kitchener, GO riders from Guelph, and communities across south western Ontario would see benefits

Page 15 has a table of scenarios:


This table is the entire public description of the “study” and “business case” for the proposal. What is noteworthy is that it purports to show a rising demand and, eventually, a falling cost for this service. This only happens if we go for the most expensive, highest speed option, and almost certainly shows a demand and benefits model that assigns a high value to the shortest travel time.

The “Benefit Cost Ratio” is highest for the 320km/h electric option, but this includes unspecified “wider benefits” that cannot be directly plugged into a purely financial model, thinks like time savings and road capacity released by diverted trips.

The net cost of this most aggressive of schemes is shown as a mere $555m, but this is over the long haul presuming that ridership actually builds up to nearly 6-million annually, or 20,000 daily. That will be something of a challenge. Profit from fares is supposed to pay off most of the $2-3b pricetag over 10-15 years, but that will be a challenge considering the bargain basement fares Murray is touting.

In his CBC interview, Murray claimed that fares would average $40, but that frequent riders could see them as low as $10-20. It is not clear whether this refers to full length London-Toronto trips, or shorter hops from KW. In any event, GO fares to KW today are $16.10 for a full fare adult, and 40 fares on Presto (the equivalent of a monthly pass) would cost $516.90, or $12.93 each.

The proposed fare for the Union-Pearson Express is over $20, and even at that, the line won’t be profitable according to the provincial auditor especially if capital costs are taken  into account. According to Murray, the UPX service would be merged with the high speed line to save on operating costs. (This would also relieve pressure on track time which will be at a premium between UPX and GO requirements, both operating at 15 minute headways.) How the high speed service would link to Pearson Airport is unclear given that Metrolinx is just finishing up a spur from the main corridor that is decidedly not “high speed”, does not serve trains arriving from the west, and serves a terminal only large enough for comparatively short trains.

It is a mystery how the high speed rail is going to recoup at least 3/4 of its capital cost from operating profits when no other rail operation in the GTHA comes close to breaking even.

With 28 trains each way, or 56 one-way trips, the average patronage of every single train will have to be 357. However, those pesky riders insist on travelling when it is convenient for them, not for the railway, and they will concentrate in peak periods. Indeed, the whole idea that the high speed service will make commuiting easier implies concentration of ridership in a comparatively small number of those 56 trips. How are the peak loads supposed to fit on that half-hour headway in anything less than GO Transit size coaches.

To put it another way, taking 20,000 trips off of Highway 401 is a nice idea, but the benefit is greatest if this happens when the road is busy. The number of trips that can be diverted at peak periods is constrained by the size of the trains and the service frequency.

In his interview with CBC, Murray clarified that of the 20k trips shifted from Highway 401, 15k are existing commuters and by implication the remaining 5k represent growth that would occur without the rail service.

Those trips also represent people who started somewhere, probably not next door to the train station. Without robust feeder/distributor services in London and KW, those customers won’t be able to reach the trains. This is the same problem faced by GO Transit’s planned service expansion into two-way all-day service. Far too often, we hear about shiny new trunk services in transit networks, but little discussion of how people will access them or the degree to which the local access leg of a trip compromises time savings on the express rail portion.

Page 16: Summary: Proposed Services

Intercity High Speed Rail

  • 2 trains per hour all day, 320 km/h + electrified
  • 71 minutes from London to Union Station, Toronto, and 48 minutes from Kitchener to Union Station, Toronto.
  • Business and Economy Class
  • Affordable fares competitive with other transportation options

GO Regional Express Rail

  • Regional Express Rail
  • GTHA Transit Fund To Build Fully Electric Regional Rail Network
  • 15 minute two-way electric service on all lines within 10 years
  • Will serve Guelph and Kitchener
  • Interim subway relief for Toronto

Pre-feasibility numbers demonstrate that RER investments in Toronto fundamentally change the numbers and present a strong case to run HSR to London.

The 10 year timeline for 15-minute service to KW is directly contradicted by the Minister’s interview in which he claims this is only 5 years away. Meanwhile, there are Liberal promises of two more GO trips each way (doubling the present service) to KW by 2016.

Page 17: We’re back at St. Pancras Station.

Somewhere there is a detailed report with more information, but this is not public:

  • According to Minister Murray (on Twitter) because the election writ has been dropped and he cannot make the document public, but
  • According to the Ministry, the document contains commercially confidential information.

“One of the first things we want to do if we’re re-elected is get those studies out there,” said Murray. [From the CBC article]

Well, if they contain “commercially confidential information”, those reports are not going anywhere, and Murray should start thinking about how to either strip such info out of the reports, or tell the Ministry (assuming he is still its Minister) to stop hiding information behind that catch-all phrase, one that is used far too often to hamper public access to documents.

At this threadbare stage of the proposal, what can possibly be confidential unless Murray has proceeded much further down the path of shopping around a commercial proposal than he is telling anyone? This project would take a goodly chunk out of Ontario’s transportation spending in the next decade or so, but we can’t see the report? This is precisely the sort of arrogance that got the Liberals in trouble over Gas Plants, among other things.

Talking to the CBC, Murray claimed that the high speed line would not be operated by Metrolinx, and CBC confirmed that Metrolinx is not involved in the study. Murray suggested that possibly the Ministry of Transportation would run the service, and of course there is always the possibility of private sector involvement.

Yet again, we hear that the “private sector” (which might actually be a very large public sector pension fund) might be interested. That only works if there is a profit to be made, and that profit depends on a secret study, not to mention investing up to 10% of the new Liberal transportation fund. Other cities and regions in Ontario might well wonder when their turns will come.

Open, transparent government? No. Election goodies? Definitely.

81 thoughts on “The Minister Muses on High Speed Rail

  1. @Nick L:

    It’s not so much that Homeland Security won’t allow it, but rather a HSR checked luggage system needs to ensure that they can match a name, face, ticket, and a physical person on an aircraft to every piece of luggage passing through security at the airport on the way to all outbound flights.

    Which is why until we get over 9/11 here in North America, we’ll never get back what we once had that let us travel freely between borders by train, car, bus, or plane. As I’ve said before, this paranoid bull&$@# is one reason I won’t be traveling anywhere in the world except to nations that don’t have computerized system tied in to others worldwide. Nobody should have to be suffering this.


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