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High-Speed Rail and the Canadian Constitution

Guest Blog by By James Cobban,

The implementation of High-Speed Rail in Canada is necessarily subject to politics.  Canada is the most decentralized federal state in the world. This has had a major impact on inter-provincial trade, which is still shackled by prohibitions such as restrictions on carrying alcoholic beverages across provincial borders despite Section 121 of Canada's Constitution Act, 1867, which says, “All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.”  

Also Canada is the only country in the world which does not have a national highway system, an accidental result of the fact that in 1867 all long distance travel was by railway and roads were only used to get people to and from the railroad.

For the deployment of High-Speed Rail in Canada the central issue is that there is only one route where   economic factors clearly justify implementation, based upon density of population, the Windsor to Quebec City corridor.  But implementing High-Speed Rail for the benefit of just two provinces is politically insupportable. The other eight provinces will demand either an equivalent deal or compensation equivalent to the $30 million per km construction cost of HSR.

The approximate 937 kilometres from Windsor to the border with Quebec via Ottawa is 0.000066 km per capita in Ontario. The construction cost would be about $30 billion.  The proposal by VIA to use a route between Ottawa and Toronto that is not currently serviced by passenger rail is controversial, but I believe is motivated by the desire to liberate VIA from the unreasonable control over its services from the freight railways which own its current right-of-way along the Ontario lakeshore.  
The proposed route is shorter and clearly land acquisition costs along this under-developed route would be significantly lower. Also there are less than half as many level crossings on this route which need to be addressed, and each such crossing costs at least $10 million to eliminate.
The 336 km from the Ontario border to Quebec City is only 0.000040 km per capita.  Quebec is the only province where the government can reliably be expected to support High-Speed Rail largely because the most influential political figures in Quebec had much of their higher education in France and are strongly influenced by French policies.  Furthermore the most likely beneficiary of a national High-Speed Rail program is Bombardier, the only Canadian company with experience in HSR.
However even with those factors the Quebec government would likely demand some compensation for the additional 218 km of line that would be justified to bring Quebec up to the same 0.000066 km per capita rate.  For example 218 km would cover the 67km from Montreal to the US border to connect with a future Amtrak HSR line and extend the line 3/4ths of the way to Riviere du Loup.
The same ratio would justify 318 km of HSR in British Columbia, or $9.6 billion. Options would include the 55km from Vancouver to the US Border, the 153km from Vancouver to Hope along the Fraser River, and the 121km from Vancouver to Whistler.  The Washington State Department of Transport has investigated partnering in a HSR link to Vancouver, but the study used unreasonable costs, much higher than experienced by European administrations.
Alberta would deserve 283km or $8.5 billion.  That is just about enough to cover the 300km from Calgary to Edmonton, reducing the trip time from the current almost 5 hours to less than 2.  Note that there is obviously a lot of room for improvement on this line even without HSR because the VIA trains take longer to cover the 300km than they do to cover the 450km from Ottawa to Toronto.
Saskatchewan would be entitled to 77km or $2.3 billion.  There is no obvious route in that province which is short enough to exploit, since it is 258km from Saskatoon to Regina.  Similarly Manitoba deserves 88km or $2.7 billion but the obvious route from Winnipeg to the US border near Pembina is 115km although it is 85km from Winnipeg to Portage-la-Prairie.
The populations of the Maritime provinces are so low that New Brunswick would only justify 50km or $1.5 billion, Nova Scotia 63km or $1.8 billion, Prince Edward Island 10km or $300 million, and Newfoundland and Labrador just 35km or $1 billion.