Don’t Be Fooled by High-Speed Rail

The Canadian government is considering spending $6 billion to $12 billion to introduce what it calls “high-frequency trains” between Toronto and Quebec City. Though some media reports have described these […]
Published on April 25, 2024

The Canadian government is considering spending $6 billion to $12 billion to introduce what it calls “high-frequency trains” between Toronto and Quebec City. Though some media reports have described these as high-speed trains (which generally means trains capable of going 250 kilometers per hour), they won’t be. Building such a rail line would easily cost $60 billion and probably much more.

Passenger-train advocates argue that Canada needs to join the international race to have the fastest trains in the world. But this is a race Canada can afford to lose because the country has something that is faster and far less costly: jet airliners.

High-speed trains were already obsolete in 1964, when Japan started operating its first bullet trains. Six years before that, Boeing had introduced the 707 and Douglas the DC-8, both of which cruised four times faster than the early bullet trains and twice as fast as the fastest trains in the world today.

Aside from speed, airliners also have a huge cost advantage because they don’t require a lot of expensive infrastructure between cities. While airports are infrastructure, the only infrastructure airliners really need are paved runways and perhaps a Quonset hut for ticket agents, baggage handling, and a waiting room—which is all that some of Canada’s more remote airports have.

Today’s big-city airports with huge concourses, shops, and jetways were built up over time and mostly paid for out of ticket fees. In contrast, rail advocates want taxpayers to put up tens of billions of dollars before a single wheel turns in the hope that trains that are slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and more expensive than both will somehow attract a significant number of travelers.

Rail advocates admit that trains can’t compete with airliners over long distances or with cars over short distances but claim there is a middle distance – supposedly around 150 to 800 kilometers – in which rail has an advantage over its competitors. That would be true only if the trains were almost 100 percent subsidized.

Air Canada and its competitors currently offer more than three dozen flights a day between Toronto and Montreal with fares starting at $118, less than 25 cents per passenger-kilometer. Fares on VIA Rail Canada averaged 68 cents per passenger-kilometer in 2022, and more than half of its costs are subsidized. People are simply not going to ride high-speed trains in large numbers if those trains cost far more than airlines, buses, or driving.

Amtrak’s only high-speed train, the Acela, collected fares of CN$1.80 per passenger-kilometer in 2022, and while Amtrak claims it covers its operating costs, all of its infrastructure costs are paid for by taxpayers. Amtrak brags that it carries more passengers in the Washington-New York corridor than the airlines, but cars and buses in this corridor carry well over 10 times as many intercity passengers as Amtrak.

The other argument rail advocates make is that high-speed trains will offer shorter downtown-to-downtown times than airlines in some markets. But most people neither work nor live downtown. Toronto and Montreal each have three commercial airports and residents are more likely to be near one of those airports than downtown.

Finally, rail proponents claim that high-speed trains will emit fewer greenhouse gases than cars or planes. But as usual they ignore the construction costs—that is, the billions of kilograms of greenhouse gases that would be emitted to build a high-speed rail line. It is likely that operational savings would never recover this cost, especially since it would be far less expensive to power jets and automobiles with biofuels.

One thing is certain: building high-speed or even high-frequency rail will require lots of workers. Far from being a benefit, Canada is currently suffering a labour shortage that is not expected to end soon. If the government decides to spend billions on a rail line, it will only make the costs of housing, cars, and just about everything else rise even faster.

China, Japan, and Spain have practically wrecked their economies by spending too much on high-speed trains. Just because other countries are foolishly building high-speed rail lines doesn’t mean Canada should do so any more than the country should spend billions on other obsolete technologies such as telegraphs, electric typewriters, or slide rules. Taxpayers should tell the government not to waste money on such boondoggles.


Randal O’Toole is a transportation policy analyst and author of Building 21st Century Transit Systems for Canadian Cities. (20 pages) March 12,2024.

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