Commentary, Opinion

Canada needs a high-speed rail system

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.



  1. The author stated that China’s high speed rail network has a total length of 2,298 km. Actually, it is 29,000 km.

  2. Lefty Throckmorton

    Hyperloop (or as I call it, Hypeloop) is a crappy invention of Elton Musk’s that will not work, and is just a deathtrap waiting to happen (most likely) based on the vehicle used in a TV movie pilot of Gene Roddenberry’s,<i<Genesis II , which later became the TV series Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (this is the vehicle similar to the Hypeloop shown going through a global network of underground tunnels.) Videos have been made showing why it won’t work in real life unlike what’s seen in Roddenberry’s movie, like this one (Why Hyperloop will FAIL HARD – It’s Biggest Problem…

    A better thing for VIA to be doing is to be totally committing to building actual high-speed rail and not garbage like ‘higher’ speed rail; the company (and the federal government) can start by electrifying these new tracks it and VIA say they’re building, and then buy as many trainsets as needed (from Japan) for this new corridor. That will give us actual high-speed rail and not some crap that’s just diesel under another name.

    As for Hypeloop, let it be where it it, and its creator can get back to building fully electric cars as he’s supposed to.

  3. Marc Lemieux

    High speed rail has been proposed for decades to no avail.

    However, implementing Via Rail’s high frequency rail project should be considered as a first step in the process to the gradual acceptability and ultimate construction of a high speed rail system in select areas of this country.

    • Marc Lemieux

      Via Rail’s HFR project has actually been approved as per our PM’s mandate letter adressed to Mr. Marc Garneau, our federal transportation minister this past December.

      Contrary to popular belief, up to 90 percent of all train travelers in Germany, for instance, overwhelmingly use regular intercity and regional trains running at top speeds of 177 kph up to 192 kph, as these trains are much more affordable, while providing most of the benefits of high speed trains.

      Via Rail’s management realized this several years ago and, as such, made the decision to focus instead on HFR in order to provide a viable alternative to driving, not flying, so as to reduce stifling gridlock in and out of our large cities.

      HFR will offer a mode of travel that is affordable, comfortable, faster, reliable, vastly more environmentally-friendly and frequent compared to any passenger rail previously experienced by Canadians!

      After several years of exposure to HFR, the stage will then have been set for the additional inclusion of HSR, and at a much more affordable cost than would be the case by starting from scratch.

  4. Lefty Throckmorton

    Marc, the author of this article doesn’t want high frequency rail, nor do I, and neither does anybody else when you get down to it (and if they’re really asked); said rail will (probably) just be the same old, same old diesel trains we already have that aren’t fast enough as it is. If VIA or Garneau wants ‘high frequency rail, let them get the same kind of rail as seen here.

  5. Marc Lemieux

    Lefty, I’ve personally travelled extensively throughout Germany using local, regular intercity, regional and high-speed trains.

    The Flixtrain in your video running at a top speed of 200 mph is basically almost identical to the capabilities of Via Rail’s Siemens Charger dual-mode train sets that would run on the proposed HFR routes.

    Both your Flixtrain and Canada’s recently-ordered Siemens Charger train sets would be categorized as higher-speed speed rail, not high-speed rail, as these would operate at speeds up to 200 mph!

    In my travels by train throughout Germany, I realized surprisingly that most travelers in fact use the above-mentioned higher-speed type of trains in order to get around in an affordable, effective, environmentally-friendly, and much-faster fashion than driving by car.

    Therefore, it is quite unfair to unilaterally dismiss the merits of Via Rail’s HFR project, when in fact, it will provide the vast majority of the benefits of high-speed rail, and at 1/3 of the cost, but, most importantly, the option to fully upgrade at some future time will still exist!

    And, Via Rail’s HFR stands a much better chance of being actually approved and built rather than the fruitless high-speed proposals in the past 30 or more years!

  6. Marc Lemieux

    Lefty, the auto-correct feature on my cell phone erroneously changed the top speed listed in my previous comment addressed to you from 200 kph to 200 mph! As such, 200 kph is the correct top speed of the Siemens Charger and Flixtrain train sets!

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