In November, VIA Rail, the Crown corporation that controls passenger train travel in Canada, unveiled plans for a “high-frequency” train project along its Quebec City—Windsor corridor. Although the project will no doubt make travelling by train more pleasant, it is not a sufficient solution. Canada should avoid quick fixes and invest more money and resources into developing a national high-speed rail system. People living and travelling in Canada, such as McGill students, could stand to gain from convenient and accessible travel within the country.
For some, being at McGill can be a stressful and isolating experience, and many students are far from their loved ones. However, going home for a weekend to destress can be difficult due to the high cost of tickets, especially for flights, and the time it takes to travel there and back. For the 68.7 per cent of McGill students living elsewhere in Canada, a quick train ride that is accessible and inexpensive could allow them to visit home more often. Those from outside of Canada can benefit, too; getting a change of scenery and experiencing new places can be great for one’s mental health.
While trains from Montreal to cities like Ottawa, Toronto, and Quebec City are frequent and quite comfortable, they can also be expensive and tend to come with an abundance of delays. An economy ticket for a student may be under $50 if booked far in advance, but the prices for a last-minute ticket can rise to over $150. Delays are common, and more expensive routes, such as the 25-hour Vancouver — Edmonton train, costs hundreds of dollars, have at times experienced delays of a whole day or more. Since VIA Rail does not own the tracks it operates on, it is at the mercy of the Canadian National Railway, the freight railway that owns the rail system in Canada. Ultimately has control over scheduling, and tends to be responsible for these delays.
VIA has offered a potential solution to this issue. The newly announced high-frequency project proposes the construction of new dedicated tracks between Toronto and Ottawa, and between Montreal and Quebec City, which VIA claims will reduce travel times. However, there has yet to be a date set for the project’s completion. Many have long argued in favour of high-speed rail in the country for its shortened travel times and environmental benefits. Plus, the technology for such a project already exists—countries and regions including China, Russia, and all countries in the European Union have some sort of high-speed rail system in place. In Europe, most high-speed trains can travel at speeds of around 300 kilometres per hour. China’s network has a total length of 2,298 kilometres, which is promising considering Canada’s size.
Despite these benefits, the closest Canada has come to realizing such a project was a Transport Canada study on hyperloop technology, a concept that has never been executed, and is in early stages of development. Companies like Canada’s Transpod and Virgin’s Hyperloop One claim that their pod-like system can travel at up to 1,000 kilometres per hour with minimal environmental impact, with a proposed travel time between Montreal and Toronto estimated at 39 minutes. While the concept is exciting, experts have expressed concerns regarding the system’s safety, citing its high pressure levels, which mean that a small defect could cause an explosion. Coupled with the fact that the technology is in its early stages, Canada should still work to create a high-speed system with technology that has proven safe and cost-effective.
Canada needs to catch up and make real improvements to its interprovincial transportation networks. Establishing a high-speed rail system could have significant environmental benefits and would encourage more people to travel within the country. A quicker and more efficient way to travel could bring many McGill students closer to not only their family, but also places in Canada that are inaccessible otherwise.