Technology has the power to accelerate rail mobility in Canada

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Canada’s railways could present the ideal environment for utilizing hydrogen fuel cell technology as companies look to cover long distances and weather harsh conditions at faster speeds

It’s been a trying 11 months for railway systems across Canada. Like many industries weathering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact has been felt widely and deeply. There is simply no nice way to put it: Canadian rail experienced a 90 per cent drop in ridership during 2020. It’s not a knockout blow, but it certainly hurts. However, as Smith & Co. CEO Judy Smith famously put it, “there’s always an opportunity with a crisis. Just as it forces individuals to look inside themselves, it forces a company to re-examine its policies and practices.”

Such is the case with transit mobility and rail innovation in Canada. It’s a resilient industry accustomed to reinventing, adapting and ultimately prevailing over the challenges thrown at it. In this case, a silver lining to the many tragedies of COVID-19 is the techno-economic opportunity to reassess the way we have structured society and, in turn, the way we have structured our mobility systems. With the recent announcement of $14.9 billion in new transit funding over the next eight years, the federal government is doing exactly that. 

New network model needed

Re-examining how we create, improve and expand rail networks is essential to making the most of post-pandemic opportunities. Even before COVID-19 struck, Canadians only took a total of 88 million rail journeys annually, most of them on commuter lines in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. That’s a tiny fraction of the total journeys taken by the commuting population, and an even smaller slice of the general population. The vast majority of Canada’s interregional railway systems are occupied by moving freight. Only VIA Rail, a federal crown corporation, moves people coast-to-coast.

VIA Rail, which I use regularly for business and personal travel, should be an option for more Canadians. The railway’s golden triangle is the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal route. Compared to a vehicle commute between these cities the train is often faster and more convenient from a work-efficiency or personal leisure standpoint. I can work all the way from Toronto to Ottawa with VIA’s WiFi services, but I’m limited to voice commands while stuck in traffic on Highway 401. Given the cost of vehicle ownership, fuel and maintenance, the train is also more affordable.

Perhaps it’s the fear of putting their commute into someone else’s hands that spurs commuters to choose their car over the train. Most Canadians have family or work obligations that mean each delay or schedule change becomes a mini-crisis avoided by driving, or even by taking pricey and carbon-intense flights. Certainly, VIA faces an expansive geography at the mercy of multiple weather systems, the impacts of climate change, and a fundamentally low population density limiting market potential for mass rail mobility.

Making rail more attractive

Alas, the conundrum: how do we reduce transportation emissions and road congestion by increasing passenger volume and commuting efficiency with reduced costs, while dealing with weak market demands for public rail and transit services across many parts of the country, as well as the prevalent cultural perception that cars are more convenient?

It’s a dilemma that climate-oriented countries are keen to resolve, and I know Canada has both the brains and the political will to do it. We just need to put the two things together, and technology gives us the means to do exactly that.

Specifically, we need to focus on the standardization of rail technologies that reduce costs and make rail more attractive to intercity travellers and commuters. We need to lure people from behind the steering wheel and into a comfortable carriage with worktops, food and beverages. 

These technologies deploy big data, artificial intelligence, driverless controls, alternative propulsion systems and new forms of resilient energy supplies to reduce delays, track congestion, and all the other factors that cause VIA trains to get stuck behind CP or CN trains for hours on end.

The good news is that we have globalized mechanisms, such as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), that could be leveraged to support these technologies. The bad news is that rail innovation, particularly between regions, is often stymied by provincial and national barriers to the standardization of fuelling, emissions, autonomy and connectivity.