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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2016. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2016. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Ontario high-speed rail could be on track for 2025, adviser says Add to ...

Ontario is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line, saying the first phase could be in service in just eight years.

Premier Kathleen Wynne travelled to London, Ont., on Friday to announce that the province would spend $15-million on an environmental assessment. She noted that the trip from Toronto took her two hours by road and said high-speed rail would cut that “significantly.”

The government is acting on the recommendations of David Collenette, who was appointed special adviser for the idea. His report, released on Friday, says there is a solid business case for high-speed rail running between Toronto and London by 2025. A later extension would push it to Windsor.

Read more: Canada Infrastructure Bank could fund high-speed rail in Alberta, Ontario

The first phase of the project – between Toronto and London – is tentatively priced at $4-billion in capital cost, according to Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca. This would roughly triple, he explained, if “the hard and soft costs” are included. The whole project is projected to cost about $20-billion. It’s unclear how this would be financed, although Mr. Collenette argues the private sector would be interested in participating.

“It’s a game changer for the community,” London Mayor Matt Brown said in a phone interview, pointing to the economic vitality of the region. “What’s limiting growth, in many cases, is the congestion we’re seeing.”

Others were more skeptical. Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris called the plan “a promise in order to win votes” in a statement on Friday. And railway consultant Greg Gormick said the government was offering a “shiny” promise rather than making cheaper and more practical moves to upgrade rail service.

“They really believe that the public can be bought off with the promise of an expensive sports car in the future rather than a used Chev today,” Mr. Gormick said in a phone interview.

The high-speed trains, running on a mix of dedicated and shared track, would be expected to operate at up to 250 kilometres an hour. The report includes a ridership projection – which Mr. Collenette said assumed a fare roughly 20 per cent more than that charged by GO Transit – of 10 million annual rides by 2041.

“We’re growing and we’re outgrowing our current transportation network,” Ms. Wynne told reporters in London. “This has been talked about for decades. … We’ve got to do it this time, folks.”

Federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said on Friday that high-speed rail in Ontario is the type of project that could be of interest to the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank. The federal government has put forward legislation to create a $35-billion bank that would aim to encourage private investors such as pension funds to take a lead role in funding and owning major infrastructure projects that have a revenue stream.

The dream of fast trains for Ontario and Quebec has been batted around for decades – so long that it even became the basis for a 2011 Rick Mercer bit on how “Canada has long been a world leader in high-speed rail study.”

The latest version is being championed by Mr. Collenette, a former federal transport minister who was tapped by Queen’s Park to assess the idea’s business case. He was also the driving force behind the Union Pearson Express airport train, which failed to meet ridership targets and was losing vast amounts of money before the provincial government stepped in and cut fares. Ridership on the UPX has since gone up, but there is no longer much hope that the service will ever break even.

The Ontario government had earlier mused about faster commuter trains, which would not be quick enough to meet the industry standard for high-speed rail. And Via Rail continues to pitch its idea for higher-speed rail, a plan to reduce delays in the most populous area by buying its own track.

Ms. Wynne acknowledged the idea’s long gestation and said the younger generation of Ontarians, who have seen fast trains elsewhere, won’t settle for more delays. She modified the old aphorism about planting a tree to say that the best time to build high-speed rail was 40 years ago, but the second-best time is now.

Mr. Del Duca, who appeared with Ms. Wynne at the event, painted the project as a way to boost the regional economy. He floated the idea that the train would allow people to commute from London to Toronto and raised the prospect of a 73-minute journey to Toronto’s Union station.

GO Transit does not currently serve London, and it’s unclear how much a fast train would cost. For comparison, a journey of roughly the same distance as Toronto to London on a high-speed train within France, to Paris from the city of Tours, cost a bit more than $60 for a round trip on a random weekday in June.

With a report from Bill Curry

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