Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium
Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium
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Canada needs a federal strategy for zero-emission transit, coach and rail

Canada needs an industrial strategy and a new federal-provincial policy implementation process to accelerate the transition to zero-emission passenger transit, writes CUTRIC’s Josipa Petrunic


Any way you slice it, Canada is one of the worst polluters per capita in the world. While some instinctively attribute that to the cold climate, other countries with similar climates do better — the people of countries like Norway and Finland use less energy in their homes, cars and food supply chains to keep warm, mobile and fed through the winter months.

Canadian lifestyles are energy intense. The solution is to reduce consumption, but that doesn’t necessarily mean worsening our quality of life. In fact, it means improving our systems to live better, faster, and cheaper along the way.

In Canada, buildings, roads, and transit-ways are outdated and designed for the 20th century of fossil fuel. In the 21st century, our transit systems need smart signaling and traffic light controls so transit vehicles are never stuck in traffic and always privileged at intersections. Subways and light rail need to be built out along corridors that are already high density and set to grow with looming immigration on the horizon. High-occupancy lanes that privilege multi-passenger electrified cars over others need to be drawn out, and we need high-speed rail that is built out to connect Windsor to Quebec City.

While the UK and countries like Germany and South Korea have clear industrial policies with cross-sector targets and goals, Canada still has a way to go, particularly with progress on zero emissions.

Missing policy gap

Catching up requires change. In the transportation sector, we need to establish a federal process to fill the missing policy gap that will enable a wholesale transition of transportation energy sourcing nation-wide.

About 155 years ago, colonial settlers decided to create a decentralized confederation — a country built on many regional territories and lots of elected opinions spread across a large geography. Today, it’s our choice to either overturn that system in a massive constitutional overhaul or work within it.

As Canadians, we can work within this decentralized web of political actors by building on what works — using the federal government as a convening entity. By bringing provinces to the table, it gets ministers of energy and transportation to agree they have a common problem to solve, and to create a federal funding tool that Canadians accept as core to our fabric of humanity — as core as our public health care investments nationally. Ultimately, this will enable provinces and their electrical systems to redesign themselves to privilege transit over cars and electrified and hydrogen-propelled transit of the present and future over diesel systems of the past.

Where are we now?

The Government of Canada has issued the goal of hitting 5,000 zero-emission transit buses by 2026. However, there are currently only 208 confirmed electric transit buses in service, 35 in the commissioning stage, 55 procured in 2022 and 341 being procured in 2023.

With the recent $2.75 billion in federal funding through the Zero Emission Transit Fund, there is an increased focus — and sense of priority — on using green technologies to build permanent transit infrastructure and develop optimized solutions, including lowest possible battery sizes and recycling plans.

The journey to zero-emission transit and coach buses should also be well on its way, but it hasn’t yet started. Getting swept up in the hype and trendiness of battery electrification has shifted the focus away from what should have been hydrogen coaches to e-bus prototypes. This progression has also been limited by the short supply of green hydrogen in Canada, and its significantly higher cost compared to diesel prices. With the federal government’s Hydrogen Strategy for Canada looking to create hydrogen “hubs” around the country, we can expect the market to shift as more green fuel becomes available to power fuel cell coaches, drive down prices, and spark the demand for coach buses and hydrogen fuel cell-powered (H2) transit.

Zero-emission rail is pushing ahead in Canada, although not at a pace that can keep up with modern innovation and expectations. Positive strides have been made by Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway, but major challenges stem from regional issues related to NAFTA and where the trains can fuel up with H2 cross border — a similar problem faced with VIA Rail and Amtrak. With conversations forming around testing e-trains between Quebec and Ontario with VIA, the long-term solution looks to be an e-train and hydrogen train mix, in anticipation of supply chain issues continuing to plague H2 coach, H2 transit and H2 rail advancements.

Where to go from here?

With specific challenges facing the transit, coach and rail zero-emission transition, the way forward requires significant short- to mid-term federal and provincial support. Through funding support and constitutional policy work, the marketplace will stabilize and be stimulated in the interest of climate action before government mostly exits the landscape and lets market forces take hold on pure profit motives in the 2040s, which will necessarily need to be the case if sustainable technologies are to win the day in a free-market economy such as ours.

This could look like the establishment of a joint Transport Canada-Infrastructure Canada-Natural Resources Canada task force to determine the best industry policy to privilege cheap, green electricity (for direct fuel or conversion to hydrogen). As stated above, in this process the federal government will serve as a common convenor with 10 provincial and three territorial electrical regulatory jurisdictions. Provincial ministers of transportation and energy must also do their part, and gather regularly to create a common national strategy and investment plan for green mobility and transit infrastructure investments.

No longer can we send out dollars without a link to decarbonization. Federal investment requires ministerial buy-in, and electrical regulatory strategic redesign to ensure our utilities and electron producers serve the interests not only of their clients but the nation at large as a population under climate threat.

This is a generational choice. It’s time to make it.

Dr. Josipa Petrunic is president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, the non-profit responsible for the development and commercialization of low-carbon transit technologies.