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CCPPP panel weighs in on Ontario high speed rail

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by Don Wall

Ontario commuters could be riding high speed rail (HSR) from southwestern Ontario to Toronto within eight years but they likely won’t be travelling at bullet speed as they do in Japan, nor is it probable there will be a Windsor to London link available.
High speed rail travelling up to 250 kilometres per hour has been recommended to the Ontario government for cost reasons. A CRH5 train, derived from the Alstom ETR600, is pictured at China’s Qinhuangdao Station. It operates at 250 kilometres per hour.
High speed rail travelling up to 250 kilometres per hour has been recommended to the Ontario government for cost reasons. A CRH5 train, derived from the Alstom ETR600, is pictured at China’s Qinhuangdao Station. It operates at 250 kilometres per hour. - Photo: KHALIDSHOU C.C. 3.0

Those were among the proposed project details unveiled to international delegates attending the annual convention of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships in Toronto recently as the province's special advisor for HSR David Collenette presented an overview of the Ontario proposal.

After his presentation Collenette joined a panel discussion that included three international authorities on rail infrastructure along with an investment specialist from the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.

Collenette submitted a report to the Ontario government in May that recommended an HSR system with trains travelling at a top speed of 250 kilometres per hour, a two-phased timetable with London to Toronto coming first followed by proposed stops at Windsor, Chatham, London, Kitchener, Guelph, Toronto Pearson Airport and Toronto Union Station.

The business case was made for London to Toronto, Collenette said, but phase two extending to Windsor should await more sustainable economic conditions.

The journey from Union to Pearson would take 16 minutes, to Guelph would be 39 minutes, to Kitchener 48 minutes and London 73 minutes.

"This is a project that you are looking at in the next 15, 16 years, lots of job creation on the construction side,"

David Collenette
Special Advisor for Ontario High Speed Rail

The timetable proposed by Collenette would see phase one in operation by 2025 but in an interview he said staging remains uncertain.

"It is up to the government," he said. "I just advise the government. I think you are seeing a great degree of urgency."

The province has commenced the preliminary design process and has allocated $15 million for an environmental assessment. It has also announced plans to create a governing body to oversee the proposed project. Collenette said the government aims to proceed using an alternative financing and procurement model.

The HSR would use existing corridors to Kitchener and then new track would be laid to London. Collenette said even where existing corridors are used there would still be significant work for the construction sector in what would become Ontario's most expensive infrastructure project ever.

"This is a project that you are looking at in the next 15, 16 years, lots of job creation on the construction side," he said.

"The existing corridors have to be completely engineered. New bridges are required and the quality of construction has to be extremely high, because it will be going through environmentally sensitive areas, indigenous lands. There will be track realignment, lots of construction jobs.

"On the new build, going from Kitchener to London, there will be a totally new right of way."

A higher-speed train was ruled out because of costs, Collenette said. HSR travelling up to 300 kilometres per hour would require extensive tunnelling, which his report said represented base direct and base uplifted capital costs of over $19 billion and $56 billion respectively for the full Toronto-Windsor corridor.

For the 250 km/h train, there would be $7.5-billion base direct costs and $21-billion base uplifted capital costs.

"The costs were off the radar screen for a 300 km/h system because the market is not there," said Collenette. "This is not Paris to Lyon, this is not the Tokyo market."

Referring to panellist Richard Eastman, executive director of operations for rail from Jacobs, Collenette said, "What was interesting, Richard Eastman, he thought we got it right. We are trying to adjust the speed for the market that is there."

Other panellists discussed when potential P3 partners might want to invest in the project. Olivia Steedman, the analyst from Teachers', pointed out their investment in Britain's HS1 train in 2010 came after the project was completed for a couple of years and proven viable. Teachers' has since sold its stake.

Eastman, who worked on HS1, said some investors prefer to wait until the construction-risk phase has passed and the revenue risk is understood.

Collenette differentiated between the concerns of different partners.

"The pension funds, they have to have iron-clad returns," he said. "They are more likely to invest in a system that is up and running.

"When looking at other companies, equipment manufacturers, designers, engineers, we got the impression they were prepared to put money in and have skin in the game."

Collenette and other panellists said hyperloop technology was unproven, with its initial possible commercial use more suited for cargo. Birmingham's abandoned experiment with mag-lev was mentioned as an example of a technology trend that did not last.

Collenette also said a Montreal-Toronto route was evaluated but found to be problematic, citing issues with using existing CP and CN commercial corridors and other hurdles.

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