I’m travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Hikari “bullet train” on the Tokaido Shinkansen line that links Tokyo to Osaka. The trip takes two hours and 15 minutes at a maximum speed of 285 kilometres an hour. The high-speed train saves time. If I drove, it would take almost six hours.
Launched in 1964, the shinkansen translates as “new main line” and is a network of nine lines. The fastest shinkansen bullet train runs at 320 kilometres an hour. On the shinkansen lines there are fast trains, semi-fast trains and local trains. On the Tokaido Shinkansen line, fast trains make six stops, semi-fast trains make between seven and 12 and local trains stop at all 17 stations along the way.
Domestically, the shinkansen is far more popular than car or air travel. In 2021, 195 million passengers travelled domestically on the shinkansen, according to The Straits Times. Only 43.9 million travelled by air. Prior to the pandemic, 370 million travelled by shinkansen and 107 million by air. Japan has nine shinkansen lines that cover around 3,000 kilometres of track and move one million people a day. Moving about on the bullet train, I’ve been able to visit Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka with seamless ease.
The shinkansen is more than a rail system. It is a global emblem of Japanese innovation and economic prowess. In the 1950s, when the rest of the world embraced the belief that the automobile and airplane would be the primary means of travel, pioneering engineer Hideo Shima and Shinji Sogō, the president of Japanese National Railways, fought to convince politicians and business leaders to back high-speed rail. Today Japan is the unquestioned leader in the field.
It is while travelling at hundreds of kilometres an hour that I read the latest news in Canadian rail transport. The media reports that Toronto city councillors have passed a motion endorsing a high-speed train route along the Quebec-Toronto corridor. In February, Montreal City Council made a similar motion as did the City of Oshawa. Six decades after Japan introduced its first high-speed train, Canadian politicians are endorsing the “idea.” Not the creation of one, but the “idea” of a high-speed train.
What’s next? Indoor plumbing? Talking pictures?
While municipal politicians are sold on high-speed rail, we have a federal government that is committed to a High Frequency Rail (HFR) project that would connect the “major centres of Quebec City, Trois-Rivieres, Montreal, Ottawa, Peterborough and Toronto” with trains that travel no more than 200 kilometres an hour (the same peak speed as Japan’s first high-speed train in 1964).
It’s a baffling choice, one that is all the more difficult to understand when you are riding in comfort on a shinkansen bullet train. I try to break it down.
Via Rail trains currently go 160 kilometres an hour. A high frequency train will travel on dedicated tracks at speeds of up to 200. That’s an increase of 40 kilometres an hour. This would shave off 30 minutes (at the most) from a trip between Montreal and Toronto. A high-speed rail route would cut the travel time by at least half.
What is the point of creating an HFR? What will it accomplish, apart from spraying money around in a few federal ridings? People will still drive. Shaving 30 minutes off a trip is not going to get anyone to take the high-frequency train. There will just be more trains for nobody to take. Making something nobody wants more frequent does not make it more appealing.
Imagine saying to a six-year-old, “Hey, I noticed you don’t like broccoli. What if we made it more often? How about twice a day, seven days a week.”
The HFR idea is so misguided that, if it ever comes into reality, it will stride across the world like the Colossus of Rhodes, an awe-inducing embodiment of wasted opportunity.
If we are going to invest in railways, we should invest in high-speed rail. We don’t need more frequent slow trains. We need a bullet train that cuts the travel time between Montreal and Toronto by half. Ideally, we’d have a line running from Windsor to Quebec City. There has also been talk of a high-speed line between Edmonton and Calgary. Of course, one of the big knocks that Canadians have when it comes to high-speed rail is climate. Canadian winters are treacherous.
The technology exists. The line running between Harbin and Dalian in northeastern China, travels at a top speed of 350 kilometres an hour through winter temperatures that hit -40 Celsius. On Sweden’s Stockholm-Ostersund route, trains withstand -35 temperatures. High-speed rail successfully runs in Norway, Finland, Russian and other Nordic countries.
There is still reason for optimism. The federal government, which in December created the Via HFR subsidiary, has opened up the scope of the search for private sector partners. A spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told The Globe and Mail that partners “will have the flexibility to consider the cost-benefit trade-offs of alternatives for meeting or exceeding the project outcomes. This would include opportunities to increase speeds beyond 200 kilometres an hour on certain segments of the High Frequency Rail project if it is cost effective to do so.”
Hope springs eternal.