I love the train. Not just as a mode of transportation getting me from Point A to Point B, but as an end in itself — like hopping on a merry-go-round. I’ve even been known to book historical steam train rides while on vacation. Other people seek out top-rated restaurants or spas when they visit places, whereas I ask: Is there a vintage locomotive in operation here?
But I love new trains as well as old ones, and what I love above all else is the idea of getting to Toronto in three hours or less.
Every so often, a newspaper headline gets me thinking high-speed rail (HSR) is finally going to happen, only for the campaign promise to fizzle out in the wake of another election. A glance through the recent history of high-speed rail proposals in Canada reveals decades of political promises and multiple feasibility studies outlining large price tags but myriad benefits. As it stands now, Canada is the only G7 nation without high-speed rail — though given the sheer size of our country, we could arguably use it the most.
And now the government is moving forward with the procurement process for high-frequency rail (HFR). For anyone who tends to let acronyms wash over them like a veil of vagueness, there’s a big difference between HSR and HFR.
High speed generally means trains travelling at or above 250 km/h. High frequency means just that: more trains. Keep in mind there are already nine or 10 departures between Montreal and Toronto every weekday, which are not always completely sold out.
Sure, it would be nice if there were more midday options, and if more of those options were actually viable instead of taking eight, nine or 10 hours to arrive. But what would really make a difference to travellers is cutting the basic trip time down from five hours.
To be fair, the proposed HFR project does aim to increase train speeds as high as 200 km/h (the lowest threshold of high speed) by creating portions of dedicated line not subject to freight train delays, yielding a projected 25-per-cent reduction of current travel times. Still, it seems like a wasted opportunity to not make the most modern upgrade possible in the Quebec City-Toronto corridor, where one-third of the country’s population lives.
Happily, there is momentum building (again) for high-speed rail. Two Montreal city councillors led a unanimous motion urging the federal government to convert this major HFR project to a HSR project — leading to yet more headlines about high-speed rail happening that I can only hope don’t end up breaking my heart.
There are other ways to get between Toronto and Montreal, of course. You can strip yourself of all dignity, travel out to the ‘burbs, consent to be full body-scanned, gunshot residue-tested, stripped of shoes/belt/watch and prodded into four to six lineups before getting into a cramped seat to cruise at 30,000 feet sick with guilt over your carbon footprint.
Or you can drive the highway of horrors that is the 401, which in my experience can take anywhere from six to 13 hours, depending on weather, traffic, accidents and sundry family hysterics. If you’ve ever been sobbing in the car around Kingston, begging to get off the highway and vowing never, ever to do the drive again, you know how I feel.
No, the train is really the only civilized option — certainly the only option for anyone with anxiety or who would like to bring a large suitcase without seeing it disappear into a chute.
And given global warming, the ecological argument for a faster train line is a no-brainer. High-speed rail could change the face of life in eastern Canada, and it would bring huge economic benefits to Montreal and Quebec.
I have my own reasons why I’m longing for a high-speed train: I’m taking a job in Toronto, so for the next while I’ll be commuting back and forth regularly. I’m not ready to leave Montreal, but this is goodbye for now for this column. Thank you so much for reading. Maybe I’ll see you on the train.
Saleema Nawaz’s latest book is Songs for the End of the World. Visit her website, saleemanawaz.com.