Introduction: High Speed Rail in Southwestern Ontario

This section introduces the concept of high speed rail (HSR) by providing an overview of HSR systems around the world, and describes the ongoing work to develop HSR in Ontario.

High Speed Rail (HSR)

High Speed Rail (HSR) is a form of passenger rail transportation that operates at significantly faster speeds than conventional train technologies. The Paris-based Union of International Railways (UIC) references the European Council definition of HSR as systems that operate at speeds on the order of 200 km/h on upgraded, existing corridors and at speeds equal to or greater than 250 km/h on new corridors1 .

Although the above definition has become widely accepted internationally, standards and definitions of HSR are still variable and dependent on regional and national contexts; HSR systems vary around the world in terms of train length, speed, type and technologies. Most are described as falling within one of the following general categories: dedicated, mixed conventional, or fully mixed.


These HSR networks are purpose-built for HSR trains only, are fully electrified and feature dedicated tracks and advanced signalling systems to allow for faster speeds and higher service frequencies. They typically cover long distances and link major metropolitan areas. The Japanese Shinkansen ("bullet train"), linking major urban centres across Japan with operating speeds of up to 320 km/h, best exemplifies this model (see Figure I.1).

Mixed Conventional

These networks feature a mix of conventional passenger rail and HSR operating on shared corridors. One such example includes France's Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), an integrated network featuring 300+ km/h systems on dedicated tracks with traditional 200+km/h lines on conventional tracks (see Figure I.2).

Fully Mixed

These HSR networks feature a combination of HSR and conventional passenger and freight rail on the same corridor. The German Intercity-Express (ICE) is based on this model as is Amtrak's Acela Express in the U.S. (see Figures I.3 and I.4).

Figure I.1: The Shinkansen System, Japan

The Shinkansen rail System in Japan extends from Kagoshima-Chuo in the south to Sapporo in the north for a total length of 2,388 km.

Source: The Government of Japan

Figure I.2: The Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) System, France

The Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) system in France is a network of rail lines throughout the country and extending into neighbouring countries.

Source: EURail

Figure I.3: The Intercity-Express (ICE) System, Germany

The Intercity-Express (ICE) System in Germany showing Routes throughout the country, and into neighbouring countries.

Source: EURail

Figure I.4: The Acela Express System, United States

The Acela Express Systen in United States, which runs from Boston to Washington, DC.

Source: Amtrak

Every high speed rail system is different since each system must take city population sizes and the distances between cities, topography and existing infrastructure into account. Tracks for conventional trains can be used by high speed trains but if train speeds are planned to exceed 200 km/h, increasingly intensive maintenance is required. As well, signalling systems along the tracks where trains are travelling at speeds higher than 200 km/h need to be replaced with systems installed on the trains themselves. Because mixed train fleets with large differences in average speeds reduce track capacity, an HSR strategy that supplements the capacity of networks when they reach their limits is often implemented.

High speed travel requires specialized trains that comfortably transport passengers and meet aerodynamic, system reliability and safety requirements.

Other Jurisdictions

Many countries, recognizing the benefits of moving people at fast speeds over great distances, are upgrading existing tracks and building new dedicated ones to create HSR networks. Of particular note are those planned or already under construction in France, Spain, Germany, China and the United Kingdom, where the planned new High Speed Two (HS2) line will link the North of England to London and improve connectivity to the existing High Speed One (HS1) line and the Channel Tunnel link to continental Europe. The common theme across jurisdictions is that these projects will expand interconnectivity between economic and population hubs, as well as to wider transportation networks.

In North America, Amtrak is the only railroad currently operating and maintaining tracks over 160 km/h; Amtrak's Acela Express, which achieves a top speed of 241 km/h (150 m/h) serving the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, is the only HSR system currently in operation in North America2 . Many factors have limited HSR's development on this continent including geography, long distances between cities, mixed corridor ownership, the primacy of freight over passenger services, the public preference of car travel over rail; and, perhaps most important, the political willingness to support the huge investment over more than one election cycle.

To further reduce trip times, Amtrak recently announced a USD $2.45 billion investment (CDN $3.2 billion) to improve infrastructure and introduce new European-designed rolling stock (the vehicles that operate on the railway track) that can achieve top speeds of 300km/h, a major departure from normal North American practice3 . The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has always had higher thresholds for passenger train crashworthiness than European standards. FRA standards were developed because passenger trains in North America share rail corridors with longer, heavier freight trains.

Given the integration of American and Canadian freight rail operations, this country's rail safety regulator, Transport Canada, has always adhered to FRA standards. Now the FRA has modified its regulations in consultation with Amtrak, recognizing that modern train signalling and safety measures have made the interoperation of traditional freight trains and passenger vehicles much safer. The new Amtrak-FRA agreement will have positive implications for passenger rolling stock acquisition in Canada and particularly for high speed rail.

HSR investments are also being made in California, where North America's latest HSR project is currently under construction. Once completed, phase one will link San Francisco to Los Angeles and phase two will link Sacramento to San Diego. Operations are anticipated to commence in 20294 . Other potential HSR corridors are being studied in the U.S., including New England, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado/New Mexico.

High Speed Rail in Ontario

Canada is the only G8 country that does not yet have an HSR system under construction or in operation. However, the concept has been considered and studied for a number of years in Ontario. Most recently, in 2014, the Government announced its decision to pursue further study of HSR between Toronto and Windsor in Southwestern Ontario. Specifically, the Minister of Transportation's 2014 mandate letter committed to "advancing environmental assessments for high-speed rail—building on the GTHA's forthcoming Regional Express Rail network—which will link Toronto, Lester B. Pearson International Airport, and Waterloo Region and London, as well as London and Windsor." This commitment was reiterated in Budget 2015.

To advance this mandate, in October 2015, former federal transport and defense minister the Honourable David Collenette, Privy Councillor (PC) and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (FCILT), was appointed as Special Advisor for High Speed Rail (HSR) to the Minister of Transportation to continue to advance HSR in the province.

The Special Advisor was tasked to provide advice to government on the implementation of HSR service between Toronto, Lester B. Pearson International Airport (Pearson Airport), Kitchener-Waterloo, London and Windsor, generally referred to as the Toronto-Windsor corridor. Mr. Collenette's mandate included working with public- and private-sector stakeholders and Indigenous communities to identify economic development opportunities associated with high speed trains, assessing international experience with HSR, and providing advice to government about a preliminary business case and financing and delivery models.

Over the course of the past year Mr. Collenette, supported by officials from the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), undertook the following key tasks:

  • Oversaw a preliminary business case analysis for alternative service scenarios, to identify travel time, ridership and other economic benefits associated with HSR.
  • Worked with the Premier's Business Advisor, the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth, and other ministries to ensure HSR is aligned with the government's economic development agenda.
  • Held engagement sessions with public- and private-sector stakeholders, as well as with Indigenous communities, to identify the opportunities and challenges associated with HSR in the Toronto-Windsor corridor and to build a relationship with communities early in the HSR project.
  • Assessed HSR experience in other countries and compiled key lessons that could be applied to support a system that meets the needs of Ontarians.
  • Conducted a market sounding with the support of Infrastructure Ontario (IO) to engage stakeholders representing the financial sector, engineering and construction firms, and operators and equipment providers to discuss key considerations with regard to financing and delivery models that will promote innovation and ensure value for money.

Budget 2016 referenced the Special Advisor's report under the section "Supporting Ontario's Innovation SuperCorridor," which underscores the importance of HSR from the perspective of economic development.

It is also important to note that, in parallel with the Special Advisor's work, MTO has been undertaking several additional tasks to advance the environmental assessment (EA) process for HSR. This includes starting work on a demand forecasting model, as well as planning for the procurement of technical and design studies. The Special Advisor's recommendations and advice will ultimately help to guide the direction of HSR work for the Province.

The Province has been studying the feasibility of HSR for more than two decades. In 1991, it implemented the Ontario/Quebec Rapid Train Task Force, whose findings provided a basis for studies conducted in 1993 and 1995. In 2011, a detailed study on the feasibility of HSR between Windsor and Quebec City, referred to as the EcoTrain report, was conducted jointly by MTO, Transport Canada, and the Ministère des Transports du Québec (MTQ).

In 2014, the Province retained the British transportation consulting firm First Class Partnerships (FCP) to conduct a pre-feasibility study of HSR on a specific segment of the previously studied corridor between Toronto and London. This segment forms a key area within Ontario's Innovation SuperCorridor, whose dense pockets of start-ups, research institutions and world-class talent comprise one of Canada's most innovative regions.

These two recent studies determined that HSR service in Ontario is conceptually feasible and has the potential to realize benefits for the Province.

The Special Advisor's extensive engagement, research and business case analysis over the past year have taken these previous studies of HSR to the next level, demonstrating that there is a tremendous opportunity to bring HSR to the Toronto-Windsor corridor.

As part of Ontario's transportation system, HSR can connect communities, generate economic growth and opportunity, and support the Province of Ontario in its desire for Moving Ontario Forward. Recommendations for the implementation of HSR in Southwestern Ontario are included throughout the report, as well as key considerations for the Province to support decision-making.


1 Union of International Railways (2016). High Speed and European Council (2007).; DECISION No 1692/96/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 23 July 1996 on Community guidelines for the development of the trans-European transport network., 8.

2 National Railroad Passenger Corporation (2016). Amtrak National Facts..

4 California High-Speed Rail Authority (June 2016). California High-Speed Rail Big Picture..

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