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?
Right-of-way is Canadian passenger rail’s Achilles’ heel. Because Canadian National Railway (CN) owns the tracks, Crown corporation VIA Rail pays rent to use them. VIA’s schedule is also literally pushed to the side, keeping trains late and passengers jaded. Government cuts from both sides of centre have kept VIA in the slow lane, and came to a head in 1989 when the Mulroney government cut the budget by a devastating 55 per cent. Since then, VIA has been wrestling with further cuts while trying to prove itself as a worthy investment—the company reported an average loss of almost $230 million annually for the last five years, before government funding kicked in.
HSR, while a costly investment, would make VIA a contender once again, especially in the proposed corridors with high densities and commuter demand. And, the demand for rail is there. An EKOS poll conducted by the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) in 2009 found 86 per cent of Canadians were in favour of HSR.
When contacted, VIA declined comment, saying, “At the present moment the timing and subject matter of high-speed rail are not a good fit.”
Cliff Mackay, CEO of RAC believes the timing for high-speed rail has never been better.
“This is a technology that has to come to Canada,” he says. “The U.S. has bitten the bullet and whether we like it or not, we’re part of a North American dynamic. Sooner or later we’re going to have to integrate high-speed rail into our transportation system.”
The stimulus package south of the border could do more for HSR in this country than any made-in-Canada plans. Of the thirteen proposed high speed rail routes in the United States, there is potential to expand north of the border into Montreal, Windsor, and Vancouver.
Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson, is hopeful that HSR will make it to his city.
“We can benefit enormously from better connectivity to Seattle and Portland, creating a mega-region in the Pacific Northwest that’s comparable to Asian and European mega-regions,” he says. “We have an opportunity now to capitalize on a huge investment south of the border, but we have no commitment from the Canadian government to invest in the northern end of the line, which is really unfortunate.”
Mayor David Miller of Toronto confirmed that a vote for HSR passed unanimously at the Big Cities Mayors’ Caucus conference in May 2010.
“The only barrier is political will,” Miller says. “The feasibility has been studied numerous times and we simply need to get going. If we’re serious about fighting climate change and creating jobs then HSR is one of the most effective ways we can do both.”
The opportunity for job creation with the arrival of HSR in Canada is obvious. After all, the leading supplier of high speed trains is Montreal-based Bombardier. Their recent contract in China to build eighty 380 km/h Zefiro trains proves Bombardier has the skills to bring HSR to Canada in any form. And along with HSR, economic opportunity is waiting.
“High-speed rail, of its own nature, creates jobs all along the track,” says Ann Macdonald, VP of Business Development and Communication at Bombardier. “Yes, it’s about job creation in factories and high-tech engineering jobs in our offices, but it’s also about bringing people together faster between major city centres.”
Liberal transport critic Joe Volpe acknowledges that the elements are all in place, and the time is right for high-speed rail in Canada.
“We’ve got the technology, we’ve got the terrain. The manufacturers and energy providers are waiting for this,” he says. “Imagine going to the best place for ingredients for the perfect meal. You have the world’s best chefs ready and waiting. All we need is for someone to come in with an appetite.”
I, for one, am getting pretty hungry.