A new debate is emerging among Canadians about whether high-speed passenger trains are the answer to rising oil prices, traffic congestion, airport delays and environmental concerns.
Governments currently running massive deficits will have to decide whether a multibillion-dollar investment of public money in passenger trains that top 300 km/h – and their supporting infrastructure – can become either a silver bullet or a white elephant for the most heavily populated regions of the country.
The issue has already come to the forefront in the United States where President Barack Obama’s administration has announced a $13-billion plan to get a faster breed of trains on track as a part of its overall economic stimulus package. But the U.S. and Canada, which arguably built their economies on rail, still face a huge gap compared to other industrialized countries when it comes to high-speed trains.
There are dozens of existing high-speed train networks around the world such as the “Shinkansen” bullet trains of Japan, the Train a Grande Vitesse networks in France, as well as other multibillion-dollar projects running or emerging throughout Europe, Russia and China.
The growth abroad is prompting Canadians to ask for their own high-speed routes that would get them away from security delays at airports or that stressful drive on intercity highways, say local stakeholders.
“I think the mindset in the country has changed,” said Paul Cote, Via Rail’s president and CEO. “There have been so many other projects that have been implemented worldwide that people know the technology exists. They’ve seen the benefits of it. They know that it can work.”
Most passenger trains in North America rarely go beyond an average speed of 120 km/h. But the high-speed trains in Europe and Asia often travel between the downtown cores of cities at up to three times that speed.
Proposals for bullet-trains between Calgary and Edmonton or between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont., have been studied for decades by engineering firms as well as federal and provincial governments, without subsequent action.
In 1995, a joint federal-provincial study estimated a Quebec City-Windsor high-speed train could cost up to $20 billion but would recover those costs through operating profits after 30 years in a market home to more than half of the Canadian population.
And in July of this year, the Alberta government released a report which assessed various options for high-speed rail in that province – at a cost of $3 billion to $20 billion, but with a potential to attract up to six million passengers by 2021.
Laura Davis, an English faculty member at Red Deer College, spends more than three hours a day in her car commuting between campus and her home in Edmonton. In some of the iciest winter months, she takes a bus that can set her back as much as $500 per month – or a little more than the cost of driving and maintaining her car.
But money, for her, is not the only factor.
“The train would be unbelievable in terms of just cutting down the time in some ways,” said Davis. “It would take the stress away.”
But critics from think-tanks such as the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg have warned that a publicly funded high-speed rail project could be plagued by cost overruns without adequate benefits for the population it would serve.
“High-speed rail would be a lovely option – if it could be done without dragging taxpayers into it and thus into a financial morass,” wrote Mark Milke, the think-tank’s research director, last month in the Calgary Herald.
Major airlines have also argued against new public support for passenger rail, saying that their own industry isn’t getting enough government support to cover infrastructure costs and other associated expenses. The National Airlines Council of Canada says it “remains concerned with the overall concept of billions of dollars in public funding potentially flowing to the development of high-speed rail.”
In Central Canada, the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario, along with the federal government, are splitting the costs of a new $3-million study to update their last report, from 1995, on a Quebec City-Windsor, Ont., high- speed link. Some MPs and senators in the Harper government have openly expressed their support for high-speed rail, but senior ministers have refrained from taking a stance, explaining that their hands are tied until the study is submitted in 2010.
Opposition parties have endorsed the concept of high-speed rail as a part of a comprehensive sustainable transportation strategy.
“No project I think would be a more triumphant symbol of wanting to tie together the two great provinces in the centre of our country,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in a recent interview with Policy Options. “. . . I do think, having looked at high-speed rail in Europe, having seen its unifying, integrating and modernizing effect on (the) European economy, we should be there.”
But even if the decision to go ahead is made today, it could take up to 10 years to build a new high-speed rail line in Central Canada. There would be several years of environmental assessments on proposed routes, followed by the construction of dedicated tracks and infrastructure to support the trains and stations, along with overpasses or underpasses to prevent collisions with other vehicles, wildlife or pedestrians.
In the meantime, the federal government is pumping out more than $30 billion over the next five years for various projects on roads, sewers, water systems, local public transit, airports and other infrastructure areas. A spokesman for Transport Minister John Baird said the government wants to focus on “shovel- ready” infrastructure projects that can be completed in the next two construction seasons to stimulate the economy.
Some economists say the government’s approach is short-sighted because it doesn’t factor in the impact of rising oil prices which could force millions of motorists to flock to public transit or rail options.
“It’s unfortunate that governments on both sides of the border are spending billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to prop up an auto industry that’s doomed to obsolescence by triple-digit oil prices when, in fact, those billions of dollars should right now be directed to an expansion of public transit and rail,” Jeff Rubin, author of Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, said in an interview.
Despite examples of high-speed trains in France or Japan that generate profits on an annual basis without requiring government subsidies to cover operations, an independent research organization is warning that the high-speed ventures should not always be approached as a money-making opportunities.
“Let’s face it, if these things were commercially viable, it would have happened (in North America) a long time ago,” said Mario Iacobacci, director of transportation and infrastructure policy at the Conference Board of Canada.
That organization has urged the government to examine whether the high-speed option is viable in the context of all factors, including its impact on reducing road accidents, lowering maintenance costs, reducing pollution and promoting regional economic spinoffs.
Cote, who left CN Rail in 1978 to join Via Rail when it was created, believes the concept of high-speed rail has finally become a relevant option for Canada and the rest of North America.
“I think we’re well on our way to do that, and I’m hopeful that will happen, ” said Cote, who is retiring in 2010. “I certainly wish it will happen.”