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High-speed rail: Is now the time?

In spite of the naysayers, public discussion on high-speed passenger rail continues to escalate. The quality press in Canada is carrying more editorial on this topic. It was also the subject of a TVO ­Agenda program earlier this summer. High Speed Rail Canada has staged several successful regional meetings with eminent keynote speakers and all had full attendance. Many more Canadians are now talking openly and favourably on the subject.

The provinces of Quebec and Ontario have a joint study underway on the Quebec City–Windsor corridor and we must hope that, like many of its predecessors, it does not just gather dust on the transportation ministries’ shelf. It must move quickly into the public domain and then forward to planning and implementation.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s medium/long-term transportation strat­egy calls for European-style high-speed rail in many key corridors. The previously car- and plane-oriented American public is warming rapidly to the idea. A recent CBC Radio Overnight narrative from German broadcaster Deutsche Welle discussed how the well-established HSR system builders, including Bombardier, Alstom and Siemens, are watching the developing opportunity in the United States and are ready with strategies to bring both sustainable work and sustainable transportation to the U.S. Will this include Canada?

In spite of the growing discussion, there are still some forces working feverishly against the implementation of high-speed rail in North America. Read any blogs associated with media coverage and the comments vary from logical-positive and thoughtful-negative to narrow and utterly inane. The majority are, unfortunately, at the low end of the spectrum. Well-funded lobbies invest huge dollars to get a pro-car, pro-highway and pro-oil argument in front of politicians and the public even though many of their commentaries on the non-viability of rail-based passenger transportation have proven critically flawed. They remain well-armed and relentless. The outdated chestnut of inadequate population density continues to be the favoured fare of dissenting politicians.
Perhaps the question that really needs to be asked is: “What are the alternatives?”

Currently, the Government of Canada seems to be relatively content with the status quo. While our airlines duke it out in the short-haul market, new highway developments are always good for photo-ops but exacerbate the emissions problem. The auto sector has received billions of taxpayer dollars, a significant part of which will never be returned. At least Via Rail Canada has received several rounds of public investment, but only enough to keep old technology viable while achieving modest gains in journey times, improved on-time performance and preserving acceptable passenger comfort.

Is the status quo going to serve Canadians in the face of global economic and demographic change? Will it preserve our mobility in an age of increased airline fragility, security concerns, overburdened, expensive highways, oil price uncertainty and continued international pressure to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is unequivocally “No.” Commentary from more sober, eminent sources is increasingly shrill in this regard.

Imagine a potential investor, coming from a country with a broader range of mobility options including high-speed rail, looking to establish a new, sustainable business in Canada. If we adhere to the status quo, where long, grinding highway journeys or cramped short-haul flights are the only available travel options, we would certainly be considered an inconvenient and less than inviting place for foreign money. In other words – backward. The exact opposite is the first-time visitor to Western Europe whose jaw drops when they see, and hopefully ride on, their first high-speed passenger train. I have personally witnessed this on several occasions and it’s inevitably followed by the question: “Why on earth don’t we have this in our country?” The choice of adjectives is usually more incandescent.

Canada’s tourism industry consistently wrings its hands over declining visitor numbers. Could it be that foreign tourists find our passenger transportation clunky and not the least user-friendly? Those with the finances to enjoy international travel (increasingly in their 60s and 70s) usually prefer not to drive at their destination. The lack of non-highway mobility, including the absence of frequent fast passenger train service, will become an escalating deterrent especially in Ontario and Quebec where attractions are highly dispersed.

It’s not only among tourists where demographics dictate appropriate travel options. Our greying society will eventually choose to drive less and decline to subject themselves to the hassle and confusion of airport transits and security. Boarding a high-speed train that runs smoothly and offers accessible and friendly passenger amenities will be an attractive means of golden-years mobility.

Detractors who base their arguments on subsidizing a large and potentially under-utilized asset need also to look further afield where modern signalling systems allow more intensive use of dedicated high-speed tracks. Southeastern Railway, a U.K. rail franchise operator, is about to introduce its 225 km/h highspeed service, branded as Javelin, to whisk commuters and other passengers in a hurry from a transportation hub in Kent to St. Pancras in London. It will use the Eurostar tracks and reduce journey times by half. Imagine this on the Kitchener/Waterloo to Toronto service with perhaps a call at Pearson airport?

The subsidy argument has been rendered totally invalid during the nuclear-like meltdown of the auto industry. At least public investment in Canadian high-speed rail infrastructure would provide a lasting asset and sustainable employment. Can the same be said of the auto sector, where the pressure to relocate manufacturing to much lower-cost areas will intensify? At best, the Canadian auto industry will only be a faint shadow of its former glory, even with frequent injections of public money. Without it, the prospect for well-paying jobs, particularly for Ontarians, is rather gloomy unless governments have an alternate industrial strategy up their sleeves. Lucidity continues to be somewhat scarce in this regard.

High-speed rail in Canada could be built as a public-private partnership. The tracks could remain under provincial or federal ownership while the rolling stock and train operation is owned by the private sector. This gives a more balanced approach to risk while removing day-to-day operations from excessive political manipulation. Incumbent party dogma must never dictate the quality of service as it currently does with Via Rail and Amtrak.

European high-speed rail has been successful in Europe to the extent it has captured a significant passenger base from short-haul air routes. Rather than trying to recoup the lost business, both Lufthansa and Air France are looking to high-speed rail as alternative airport hub feeders. Deutsche Bahn ICE tickets now proudly show a Lufthansa flight number. Air France is rumoured to be considering branding its own high-speed rail service. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, already a British rail franchise and long-haul airline operator, is apparently casting an eye to the Channel Tunnel and rails beyond. Deutsche Bahn, the European rail powerhouse, may eventually present its ICE trains to delighted Germany-bound passengers at St. Pancras station in London. Might Air Canada’s salvation come partly from having a stake in Canadian high-speed rail?

Those with a libertarian and narrow perspective on high-speed rail in Canada will continue their efforts to brand it as a waste of taxpayers’ money and a pork-laden boondoggle. Recent economic events and a broader view of the rest of the world continue to disqualify their adversity. There is an increasing realization that travel options engineered in the last 30 years or so will no longer position Canada well for tomorrow. High-speed rail with improved modal integration will help us remain competitive, employed and mobile. It is indeed time.

Ken WestcarWoodstock, Ontario