Alstom have begun advancing a proposal to upgrade the High Frequency Rail project to High-Speed Rail, naturally proposing the choice of their Avelia family of high-speed trains, which are also being produced for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. They have been presenting to chambers of commerce along the route. The Mayor of Quebec City, Bruno Marchand, has also weighed in, announcing on January 24th that he favours the TGV option and has been discussing this with the federal government.
One of the questions asked when the High Frequency Rail project was first proposed in 2016 was “why not go faster?” and there were two main answers to that. First, focusing on frequency and reliability would get something done, because several previous High Speed Rail proposals are already gathering dust after being shelved due to cost; and second, to get done it sooner rather than later.
The original vision of HFR was that building it quickly would relieve the congestion on VIA Rail’s existing route, allow rail to meet growing demand sooner, and thus grow revenues and build the case for further upgrades like electrification and speed increases later. Now it already is “later” and the urgency of providing zero-emission public transport is becoming increasingly obvious if Canada is to meet its climate commitments.
Using existing and dormant rail corridors, the proposal as originally planned could have been implemented within a couple of years. The federal government managed to completely miss the empty-net goal on offer, and after years of additional study plus fumbling the question of access to the Mount Royal Tunnel, has finally begun procurement in a way that reopens the project to design changes, potentially including going faster than 200 km/h (125 mph).
While our government has waited, Canada’s infrastructure has also fallen further behind in the world, with more than 15,000 km of new lines opening in China alone between 2016 and 2022. The European Union now expects new rail corridor projects under its TEN-T program to be designed for track speeds of at least 250 km/h for passenger and 160 km/h for freight.
Therefore, Alstom’s proposal is worth evaluating. They make the case that since the project is now to be electrified from the start, the incremental cost to increase track speed should be considered reasonable.
The route shown in the Alstom proposal (below) is largely identical to that in previous iterations of the High Frequency Rail plan, the main change being use of the Lucien L’Allier station site in Montreal, to reduce the time consumed by going in and out of Gare Central, and then following the CP “Round the Mountain” route to reach the line toward Quebec City. This still represents a significant increase in travel time for passengers between Quebec and Laval and points west versus the original plan to use the tunnel, but Alstom have confirmed that sharing track between their Metropolis equipment chosen for the REM and any intercity equipment is technically infeasible and not currently under consideration.
The two sections shown as candidates for 200-300km/h upgrades are between Laval and Quebec City, alongside the existing rail alignment, and between Havelock and Smith Falls. The VIA-owned tracks between Smith Falls, Ottawa and Montreal would be upgraded to 200 km/h, but the section between Toronto and Peterborough is not illustrated as being upgraded beyond current Class 5 track speeds of 144 km/h (90 mph). Details of the routing proposed are open to further refinement.
The presentation is illustrated with bright red version of the Avelia Liberty, a version of Alstom’s current generation of high-speed trains that is equipped with tilting passenger cars for use on Amtrak’s Northeast corridor. A key question is whether a tilting train can overcome one of the biggest challenges faced by the HFR project: restricted speed over the curvy alignment of the former Ontario & Quebec route between Havelock and Glen Tay.
Tilting trains were developed to allow higher speeds over existing routes, with alignments laid out in the 19th century. The current generation of Amtrak’s Acela and the VIA Rail LRC’s as originally delivered employed tilt for this reason, as do the Pendolino trains used in Switzerland and the UK.
While tilting the car body mitigates the lateral acceleration experienced by passengers, allowing a comfortable ride at up to 30% higher speeds through curves, the track-train interaction forces operating through curves still increase in proportion to the square of velocity. Therefore, track maintenance expenses also grow rapidly, maintenance windows must be more frequent, and combined with the extra maintenance of the tilting mechanisms – two additional complex and mission-critical subsystems to maintain in each car – the savings in construction cost and commercial value of reduced running time need to be considerable to justify deploying tilt. Usually this only applies to shared corridors where additional superelevation isn’t an option.
Because dedicated tracks will be used for the majority of the High Frequency Rail route, and in particular the Havelock-Glen Tay segment, the superelevation of those tracks can be optimized for passenger speeds, potentially negating the need for more costly tilting trains. However, VIA’s proposed 3h15 timing between Toronto and Ottawa already pushed what is possible on the existing geometry to the limit.
To go any faster, extensive realignment would be required. With that comes considerable cost both in money and time to deliver the project. A suggestion to reroute to the north of Sharbot Lake, avoiding the village and one of the tightest curves, had already been brought forward by the community, but this and other realignments would require consideration of the difficulty of construction through the hard rock of the Canadian Shield, plus consideration of environmental impacts and consultation with the Indigenous communities in the area.
If extensive realignment was already under consideration, and unfortunately the public does not know whether the Joint Project Office considered this due to the absence of transparency around their $71M of work, then higher speed operations could also be achieved using a non-tilting train. Alstom’s Avelia Horizon, operated by SNCF as TGV-M, is capable of up to 350 km/h.
Jean-Yves Taillé, SNCF’s Director of New Line Construction at the time, who visited Canada as a guest of Transport 2000 in October 1994, and suggested that steeper grades, of up to 3.5%, which are employed on the French TGV network, would be a feasible approach to tackling similar terrain.
Originally estimated at $4bn, with electrification an option at around $6bn, the federal government is now discussing a project budget of $12bn for High Frequency Rail, and a high-speed option could increase that further. Transport Action is alarmed by cost escalations for all recent transit and transport projects because they limit the ability to deliver other much needed projects across all areas of the country. We are also concerned that the extended timeline, combined with increased cost and plan to ask the private sector to assume revenue risk over a 30-year concession, could see ten years of work on High Frequency Rail all come to nothing and join previous proposals on the dusty shelves.
It is imperative that Canada gets on with building and upgrading our rail infrastructure to remain competitive, so we look forward to further conversations with Alstom to explore the technical details, costs, and benefits of their proposal.
C. N. Pyrgidis and N. G. Demiridis, (2006) “The Effects of Tilting Trains on the Track Superstructure,” 2006 IET International Conference On Railway Condition Monitoring, Birmingham, UK, pp. 38-43.
A. Matsumoto, Y. Sato et al. (2012) “Continuous observation of wheel/rail contact forces in curved track and theoretical considerations.” Vehicle System Dynamics 50(sup1) pp. 349-364. 10.1080/00423114.2012.669130.
Photo: Rendering of potential Canadian variant of Alstom Avelia Liberty