Slow Train Coming
If Canadians are ever going to ditch the tire for the track we need to embrace high-speed rail as a faster, smarter way to go. So why haven’t we?
The weathered track causes the train to convulse and shake to the point where sipping my coffee is a dangerous feat of balance and focus. Beside me, my wife attempts to write a few lines in her journal, but a sudden jolt throws her pen upwards, leaving a long, black, mark on the page. Without warning, the countryside on our left slows down in the window, the shaking subsides, and the great machine lumbers to a halt. We sit motionless in the night for nearly half an hour as we wait for a freight train ahead to pass.
This is not a diary excerpt from 1946. It is a scene from VIA Train number 87, in March 2010. This is not how I pictured travelling in the 21st century; I thought by now there would be a better way to go. Not hover cars, not jetpacks, but a technology that exists today and has been embraced everywhere but here: high-speed rail (HSR).
My wife and I live 150 kilometres from our hometown of Stratford, Ontario. Our gut instinct is to go home via train, since an online carbon calculator tells us the emissions per person are about half that of an average car carrying two passengers. But because of cost, speed, and convenience, we tend to end up in a rental car, filled with greenhouse gas-fuelled guilt.
In 2007, transportation was responsible for 36 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions–the highest of any sector. Passenger rail contributed only 0.3 per cent to this number, compared to 9.5 per cent by air travel, and 42 per cent by road-based travel. If more Canadians chose to travel by rail, it would have a significant impact.
As it stands, Canada is the only country of all the G8 nations with no definitive plans to implement HSR. Even Russia, a country with larger land mass and harsher environmental conditions is far ahead of us, launching the new Sapsan train that travels at speeds upwards of 250 km/h in autumn 2009. In the United States, Obama announced an $8 billion “down payment” for HSR, and China has confirmed a massive $300 billion investment to connect the country with 10,000 miles of HSR lines. All things considered, it would be generous to call Canada developmentally delayed. In 2007-2008, the Government of Canada spent only $326 million on passenger rail compared to $20.9 billion on roads.
To find out why we’re at a spending standstill, I went to the federal government for answers. But my journey to the top was short-lived. John Baird, the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Community Development declined comment, and I encountered the same roadblock with Rob Merrifield, Minister of State for Transport. Baird has spoken out against HSR because of the high costs.
Of course, economics are important. David Levinson, a transportation economist at the University of Minnesota and editor of the Journal of Transport and Land Use is a strong critic of HSR’s economic practicality.
“In most markets, the benefits of high speed rail don’t outweigh the costs,” he tells me.“From a strictly economic perspective, when that is the case you don’t do it.”
HSR, he notes, often carries high costs associated with constructing and grading the track, tunneling through mountainous regions, and electrifying the systems themselves (if electric powered). For Levinson, electrifying cars and upping urban transit infrastructures would be far more cost, energy, and carbon effective, because they move more people, and would have a greater impact.
When I ask him about the feasibility of HSR in Canada, his response is surprisingly less critical.
“In Canada, [cost] might not be such an issue if you are looking at the corridors from Quebec to Windsor, or Calgary to Edmonton,” he says. “At least, along those two corridors it’s reasonably developed. If you could somehow get a separate right-of-way, it might be cost effective.”