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Sustainable High-Speed Rail Development in Canada: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation
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16 October 2023

In April 2022, the International Operations arm of German national railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) signed a long-term partnership with the City of Toronto to modernize and expand its passenger rail network. Once complete, the revamped rail network will nearly triple its current capacity to approximately 200 million passengers a year. The bilateral partnership with DB and Toronto’s transport agencies is a considerable step forward in provincial climate policy geared towards sustainable transport; however, the omission of a high-speed rail (HSR) partnership is notably glaring. Canada needs to leverage existing transatlantic partnerships with companies that specialize in HSR, such as Germany’s DB International, to enact policymaking that prioritizes the construction of this form of sustainable mobility.

HSR, defined as trains that can operate at speeds of 250km/h or higher, has become a highly sought after mode of transport in various countries due to its efficiency, speed, and sustainability. HSR is less carbon intensive than short-haul air travel given that it operates on electricity (which can be fueled by renewable energy) and is therefore also considered more sustainable than conventional forms of transportation that are fossil fuel-based. Despite a half century of advocacy and a rapidly growing population, Canada is considerably off track in developing HSR and is the only G7 country to not have a single route; this has resulted in an overreliance on air and road transport, leading to increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, vehicle congestion, and economic inefficiencies. Federalism and governmental bureaucracy, expensive infrastructure for HSR construction, low population density, and a lack of contemporary rail culture have derailed Canada’s past ambitions for HSR. A big disadvantage in Canada is the historical and contemporary lack of political bipartisanship in the advocacy and creation of HSR, alongside the Canadian government not owning the railways. The government owned passenger rail service of Canada, VIA Rail, currently shares its tracks with private Canadian freight companies which results in various inefficiencies including track congestion and frequent delays.

Contrastingly, Germany was the third nation in the world to adopt HSR, after Japan and France, with service beginning in 1991. Germany’s Inter-City Express (ICE) trains can reach speeds of up to 300km/h, a stark contrast to Canada’s VIA Rail reaching a top speed of 160 km/h. A transatlantic partnership between Germany and Canada for the development of sustainable HSR in Canada would enhance the country's sustainable mobility systems, improve regional connectivity, and foster economic growth.

Rail Policy in Canada

Throughout Canada, there is currently no time-saving incentive along the main rail corridors that VIA Rail operates on, in comparison to auto or air alternatives. At the turn of the century, the trip from Toronto to Montreal could be completed in three hours and 59 minutes, with the identical trip taking up to five hours in 2020, despite 318 million dollars in federal funding over the last decade to improve VIA Rail’s service and operations. This regression in speed, financial mismanagement, and stagnated innovation has left Canada behind its Asian and European peers in rail development more broadly, and an entire generation behind in HSR development specifically.

Although the Canadian government has announced plans for a high-frequency rail (HFR) line that would reach speeds of up to 200km/h and be running by the mid-2030s, it falls short of a more efficient HSR corridor that would see trains operate between 250km/h to 300km/h. Three consortia have been chosen to submit a proposal for HFR, with one consortium including DB. While HFR would run on both existing and newly constructed tracks, building new and exclusive state-owned tracks for HSR would be more advantageous to avoid delays and reduce VIA Rail’s reliance on private rail companies in Canada. The high construction costs associated with the development of dedicated HSR tracks would be offset by the net economic benefit in Canada’s busiest corridors such as Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. DB should thus refocus its efforts and present an HSR recommendation to its Canadian partners.

Sustainable HSR and Transatlantic Cooperation

In DB’s 2022 Integrated Report, Germany’s main rail operator outlined its ambitions for sustainability efforts pertaining to its HSR networks. By 2038, DB aims to source 100% of its traction current from green electricity to meet its 2040 target of climate neutrality. The German approach for its HSR network points to a large focus on generating renewable energy from wind and solar farms for the powering of its HSR routes and reducing indirect GHG emissions; the initiaitves will result in the reduction of carbon emissions by approximately 60,000 tonnes annually. In contrast to Germany, there is no regulation in Canada requiring rail operators to achieve net-zero emissions within a set timeframe, arguably decelerating forms of renewable energy sourcing that can aid green mobility initiatives such as HSR. Consulting German expertise and stakeholders presents Canada with a unique opportunity to enlarge the scope of its ambitions and to create a federal blueprint for achieving sustainable HSR in the next decade.

Becoming a key partner in Canadian HSR development presents DB International with an opportunity to leverage its nuanced expertise with countries such as Canada and invest funds from large scale projects back into the expansion of its own HSR network across key German hubs. The capital inflows would aid DB’s balance sheet, improve infrastructure, and supplement the 45 billion euros earmarked for DB by the Bundestag (German federal parliament) by 2027. Additionally, VIA Rail’s newest fleet is powered by German manufacturer Siemens Mobility, underlining the pre-existing rail relationship between the two transatlantic partners that can be further cultivated for HSR development.

With respect to alternative forms of sustainable transport that can inform HSR policymaking and strengthen transatlantic cooperation, in July 2023 Quebec City became the first city in North America to operate a passenger train powered by hydrogen, using French rolling stock manufacturer Alstom’s Coradia iLint model. However, it was Berlin in 2018 that debuted the train, reaffirming Germany’s status as an innovator in sustainable mobility with the unveiling of the world’s first hydrogen powered passenger train. Despite the top speed for the Coradia iLint only 140km/h, prospects for further innovation and increased speeds could act as a regional complement to HSR development in lower-density areas. Installing electrified rails or overhead catenary wires for HSR can be challenging in lower-density corridors; however, a strategy Canada can continue to adopt and prioritize in these regions is the replacement of diesel propulsion trains with a green hydrogen ecosystem of sustainable rail. Germany has purchased a version of the Coradia iLint that uses Canadian made fuel cells, strengthening the prospects of a clean energy supply chain between the two nations’ transport industry and sustainable rail cooperation. This was bolstered by the Canada–Germany Hydrogen Alliance agreed in August 2022 whereby Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed a joint declaration of intent for a “transatlantic Canada-Germany supply corridor,” with Canada slated to export clean Canadian hydrogen to Germany by 2025. Across the supply chain, partnerships such as the Canada–Germany Hydrogen Alliance will deepen economic cooperation on sustainability and clean energy projects. The Canada–Germany Hydrogen Alliance provides the foundational framework for which a mutually beneficial bilateral partnership can begin to flourish between the two transatlantic partners, particularly with respect to sustainable transport and its supply chains.

Moving Forward

Canada’s Ministry of Transport should engage its German counterparts on knowledge sharing for sustainable mobility networks while simultaneously fostering public-private partnerships (PPPs) to inform feasibility studies, conduct policy analysis, and facilitate the development of sustainable HSR in Canada’s most densely populated corridors. DB International has a granular understanding of regulatory bureaucracies pertaining to HSR development that it can export to inform Canadian HSR policymaking. Canada should look to Germany with respect to its extensive state funding for its railways, the operationalization of incorporating HSR into an existing railway grid, and overcoming governmental gridlock to promote innovative approaches to sustainable mobility.

Continued collaboration on sustainable transport projects will allow for transatlantic synergies between Canada and Germany to be further developed and create a new foundation for cooperation on new sustainable mobility initiatives, first of which should be the development of sustainable HSR in Canada.

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Headshot - Khalil Khalifa

Khalil Khalifa

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Analyst at the United Nations Partnership for Action on Green Economy (UN PAGE)