When hearing the words high-speed rail, some might conjure images of Japan’s Bullet Train, while others are left scratching their heads. It was not long ago that the Ontario government announced plans to develop such a line from Toronto to Windsor, with a stop right here in Kitchener-Waterloo. This would reduce travel time between Kitchener and Toronto to a mere 48 minutes. According to the CBC, that plan has since been put on the backburner, but there is no harm in wondering if our region would truly benefit from such a connection.
High-speed rail is defined as being 250 km/h for new train lines and 200 km/h for existing ones, with its primary use being passenger rail. Over 30 countries have these advanced transit systems, with the leading regions in this technology being Asia and Europe. Though there have been many proposed high-speed lines in Canada, as it stands, the country still lacks the infrastructure.
Firstly, it is critical to look at the existing infrastructure between Kitchener-Waterloo and the rest of Southern Ontario. The region is serviced by four provincially-maintained highways including Highway 7, 8, H85, and the 401. In terms of bus connections, GO Transit offers two routes to and from Mississauga’s Square One and Brampton’s Bramalea GO. These routes, which are certainly familiar to many students from the GTA, start right here at the newly-built University of Waterloo Terminal, with stops at Laurier and Kitchener GO among others.
There are two rail connections to the east and west of the region: VIA Rail’s Quebec City-Windsor Corridor and GO Transit’s Kitchener Line. VIA Rail’s service offers one round trip connection per day between Kitchener and Sarnia, with a stop in London, and two round trips to Toronto’s Union Station. GO Transit offers weekday service to and from Union, with stops in Guelph and the GTA, and a new two-year pilot launched in 2021 that offers once-a-day round-trip service to London.
Before we delve into the idea of high-speed rail, it is important to consider the value of connecting the Region of Waterloo to other communities in Southern Ontario. The Toronto-Waterloo Innovation Corridor is the largest tech cluster in North America outside of Silicon Valley. The area is home to more than 15,000 tech companies and over 300,000 high-tech workers. On top of that, it has 16 post-secondary institutions, with UW being one of the primary technology and engineering schools attracting top talent to the region. With Toronto being the fourth-largest city in North America and having the largest economy in the country, improved integration in the corridor would have profound economic benefits. The hour-and-a-half drive in a personal vehicle between the two regions, often worse during peak hours, does not rival the capacity of a train that could cut the aforementioned travel time in half.
Speaking to a student at UW regarding the proposed high-speed rail along the corridor, which she lives on, Alison Zangrilli said that “not only would high-speed rail benefit the surrounding areas, but it would allow Kitchener-Waterloo to be a monument for change and hopefully inspire other cities to ride into a new frontier.”
A high-speed connection between London and Toronto would cost $11 billion, according to the province’s initial estimates. Though this might be a dream come true for many, Canada’s struggle to actualize high-speed rail casts a shadow over this hope. The benefits of this line are clear, but considering the province is lagging behind on more crucial transit projects, it is unlikely this will translate to reality. That does not mean there is no hope for faster, more consistent, and more reliable train service along the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.
GO Transit is working on a major Kitchener GO rail service expansion to convert its service into a truly regional express rail. The biggest challenge currently facing the Kitchener line is the ownership of the tracks between Georgetown and Bramalea GO by CN, a freight service, and the lack of double platforms at some stations, including Kitchener GO. In GO Transit’s ideal scenario, the trip would be reduced to 90 minutes between Kitchener GO and Union, making it similar to a car trip. It would also cost north of $1.5 billion, significantly less than the high-speed alternative. GO expects annual ridership to increase by four million passengers with the expansion. The project would run one train per hour all day between Kitchener and Union. It would also offer train service during off-peak hours between Kitchener and Guelph, with better service between Bramalea and Union. Though there are no plans for weekend service as it stands, the business case for the expansion highlights the need for a parallel bus service when trains are not running.
In addition to the actual service improvements, the Kitchener train station is planning to move to the Kitchener Central Station that is currently next to Google’s offices this summer. Although the station’s building still has not secured enough funding, the stop itself will move and have the double platform required for the expanded service. This will serve as a central hub connecting train service with the Ion LRT and GRT buses.
For many students living in the GTA, expanded GO service might be a better alternative to high-speed rail because of stops in the suburbs and outlying areas of Toronto. For those who would benefit from the 48-minute service to Union Station, there is no real silver lining. Since there is no longer a firm timeline for this expansion, we all will likely have graduated before these plans come to fruition. Oh well, at least we can dream.