Travel between Montreal and Toronto could soon rival flying. The Canadian government has announced it's seeking proposals for an inaugural high-frequency rail (HFR) project, signalling a step closer to the major transportation upgrade.
Compared to the rest of the world, Canada is at the caboose of fast rail travel. Trains that go more than twice the speed of cars are common in Europe and Asia, making rapid transit an everyday occurrence. With the new high-speed rail project, Canada could soon join the ranks of countries with swift and efficient inter-city rail travel.
A VIA Rail train with the Canada logo.Chhobi | Dreamstime
In order to put the high-frequency rail plan into action, VIA Rail has created a branch called VIA HFR, tasked with planning a way to supercharge the most-travelled route in Canada, known as "the corridor", between Quebec City and the border with Detroit.
VIA HFR has so far qualified three groups to build a new rail line between Quebec City and Toronto. The private sector contenders in line to win the bid include major players from around the globe, and from our own backyard. One team includes CDPQ Infra — the company responsible for the REM — working alongside SNC-Lavalin, the infamous Montreal construction company.
The Montreal skyline from a REM train.Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime
Other teams include multinational corporations that have managed infrastructure and transit projects across Canada, Europe, North America, and beyond.
The project's next step began in late October with a call for the companies to outline their best offers for supplying Canada with high-speed trains and track.
The tracks need to be able to support trains capable of reaching high speeds, while the trains need to be fast and affordable. To meet the government's requirements, trains must reach a minimum speed of 200 km/h. Whether they'll be able to go faster and reach speeds up to 250 km/h has yet to be confirmed.
A Go train and airport train come in and out Toronto.Nuvista | Dreamstime
At a global crossroads
Canada is currently the only country in the G7 without high-speed trains. Even Uzbekistan — a country with almost the same population as Canada, but a GDP per capita six times lower — has trains that go 250 km/h.
VIA Rail currently uses tracks owned and operated by the Canadian National Railway, making frequent or faster travel impossible, while also slowing down cargo and container shipments. New, electrified, and high-speed tracks would let trains zip past slow, lumbering freight trains.
Map of the projected high-frequency rail line.Courtesy of VIA HFR.
The goal of VIA HFR is to have not only faster trains but reliable ones that come at much more frequent intervals. If trains were to leave every 40 minutes, for example, people could just "catch the next train" without planning their whole day around departure times.
What does this mean for Montrealers?
The total length of the future train line is no small distance — covering 1,200 kilometres — from Quebec City to Windsor. Using Google travel time estimates, we calculated current VIA Rail, flights, and car travel times alongside projected average speeds for HFR trains.
If the new trains had a lower average speed of 150 km/h, an optimistic 180 km/h, or even an ambitious 200 km/h, this graph shows just how fast you could get to other stops from Montreal. The flight times include an extra hour to factor in a 30-minute trip to YUL airport, boarding times, and security clearance, but doesn’t take into account getting there early.
A graph with "Projected Travel Times from Montreal."Will Prince | MTL Blog
While a flight to Toronto might technically only take a few hours, the hassle of commuting to and from the airport can be a major inconvenience. And if you're flying during peak times, navigating through security quickly is wishful thinking.
While the REM extension between downtown Montreal and the airport is in development, and will someday get you on a Toronto flight quicker than now, a high-speed train line between the two cities would likely be less of a hassle. Right now, the fastest trains to Toronto are still usually slower than driving, so the upgrade would be revolutionary.
VIA Rail train in Toronto.Howard Sandler | Dreamstime
The lengthy five-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal to Toronto could be cut in half if we had very fast trains, but realistic estimates with 150 km/h average speed would shave off about two hours from the trip. Ottawa could be even simpler to go to and from, with the travel time cut cleanly in half, allowing things like grocery runs to Ontario.
Steering the high-frequency rail dream
VIA HFR is faced with many complex requirements, and in order to juggle all of the moving parts, Montreal Port Authority’s CEO, Martin Imbleau left his position on September 9 to lead VIA HFR.
"I am dedicating my time to listening to our team and advisors; Indigenous Communities, stakeholders; and Canadians… I intend to deliver this project in full transparency, and this committee will be kept informed of our progress regularly," Imbleau told the House of Commons transport committee on September 20.
A diagram showing that the project has reached the second part of the "procurement phase."Courtesy of VIA HFR.
The project may sound too good to be true, and many steps must be taken before passengers will be allowed to step on board, but the Government of Canada has invested nearly $400 million over the past two years to get the project moving. Before construction starts, private sector teams will have to plan with the government how to connect Quebec City with Toronto, where to build new tracks, and where they can use existing ones to save costs.
It remains to be seen if the project is to progress within a reasonable timeframe. The idea of the project sparked in 2016, marking eight years since its inception. It could take at least that same number of years before the trains are up and running.
Montreal is ready for faster travel that will change our vacations, weekends, and daily work routines. The tracks aren't built yet, but the high-speed train could leave the station sooner than you may think.