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.”
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.