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Canadian Liberals Hope to Find Electoral Success in Support for High-Speed Rail

by Yonah Freemark -

September 1, 2009

Ruling Conservatives have been reluctant to commit to what would be a huge project to connect Québec, Montréal, Toronto, and Windsor.

Early this year, the Canadian Conservative Party came close to losing its control of the federal government after the Liberal, New Democratic, and Bloc Québécois parties suggested that they would demand that their collective legislative majority be honored. In Canada, the party with a plurality of seats is traditionally rewarded with the Prime Ministership even if multiple parties on the opposing side have more total representation in the Parliament. In the past few months, Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have attempted to soothe the masses by appropriating cash to major projects throughout the country — Toronto received huge grants for several light rail lines and the proposed Québec-Windsor high-speed rail link garnered preliminary support.

Months have passed and there has been no added commitment to the fast train project, so the opposition Liberals, seeing a winning issue, have jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to make a new rail connection a central feature of their campaign in the next federal elections, which will likely be this fall next year. The Conservatives continue to suffer from significant unpopularity in Canada.

Though the issue of a train between the largest cities in Ontario and Québec provinces has been studied dozens of times and despite the fact that the metropolitan areas around Toronto and Montréal, just 550 km apart, house more than 1/4th of the country’s population, Canada has never made a strong commitment to fast rail. A concentrated investment would allow for service between the cities in 2h15, far less than the five hour trip required today on VIA Rail Canada. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, is ideally located between the two. There are cumulatively 60 daily round-trips offered by airlines directly between the cities. This is a corridor that demands high-speed rail.

Adding such a program to the Liberal electoral agenda may inspire growth in the party’s ranks in Ontario and Québec, though inhabitants of Alberta may be inspired only if the Party pushes a less effective Edmonton-Calgary link. It’s hard to see how people in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the country’s other provinces will be inspired by any talk of high-speed rail, since no one is discussing the possibility of a cross-Canada connection.

The New Democratic Party, positioned to the left of the Liberals, has been advocating for fast trains for years, as has the Bloc Québécois, though the latter group, focused on Québec sovereignty, seems more interested in a Montréal-New York link than a line to Toronto. As a result, new voters seem likely to be attracted to the Liberal Party from the right, rather than the left, since it is from that side of the political spectrum that the Liberals have lost most of their support since the heady days of the early 1990s.

It seems hard to argue with the Liberal plan to support high-speed rail, though there’s no reason to think that Conservatives won’t hijack the idea if popular support for the project gains steam. Though their political future is very much in doubt, English Labourites have come down strongly on the side of a new north-south high-speed link after months of opposing Tory efforts to promote the project. Nonetheless, when the next government comes to power in Canada in early 2011, it seems likely that we will see a politician on the left in the Prime Minister’s seat; the Liberal Party’s new-found support for high-speed rail is a good first step for what will have to be a major undertaking. This is especially true because political support now must be strong enough to withstand a public backlash against the project’s likely C$50 billion cost later.