Support for high-speed rail hard for politicians to ignore

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Pushed by their success elsewhere and their sudden popularity in the United States, high speed trains are finally getting a serious but long overdue look in Canada.

In the spring, a $3 million technical review of 20 years worth of studies on high speed rail costs and challenges in Canada will be released. After that it will be up to the federal,Quebec, Ontario and Alberta governments to decide whether to proceed.

Polls show public support for high-speed passenger trains in Canada is at an all time high, thanks in part to President Obama's ambitious high-speed program for the United States that commits US$8 billion for projects plus another $5B over five years. Two of the proposed high-speed corridors could connect with Canadian centers.

The Alberta government released a study it commissioned that makes a strong case for a high-speed train between Calgary and Edmonton.

Adding to the political momentum, the House of Commons transport committee has attracted so much attention for its public hearings on high speed trains that it's still trying to complete a report. The Liberal Party says a high speed train in the Ontario-Quebec corridor will be one of its election promises.

In November, the Railway Association of Canada is holding a conference on high-speed rail with domestic and international experts discussing a wide range of issues.

For Paul Langan, who's helped popularize the idea through his High Speed RailCanada website,, the issue "has moved more in the last year than in the last 20. When I started the site, all the high-speed train news came from Europe andAsia. Now there's so much happening here, I don't have room for anything else on the site. I had no idea the time was so right."

Interest in high-speed rail has grown to the point that "the biggest challenge to our group is funding and keeping up with the demand," he explains. "The web site is relatively easy to keep inexpensive but the request for public symposiums keep growing. We would like to remain objective in our opinion on high-speed rail manufacturers, technologies etc. so we continue to refuse to take corporate funding.

The proposals for a high-speed passenger service linking Montreal, Ottawa andToronto and in Alberta have been mooted for years but more recently the concept has attracted interest in the lower mainland of British Columbia, he adds.

HSR Canada has held public forums across the country with the latest set for Oct. 14 in Red Deer, a likely stop on an Edmonton-Calgary train.

"What's missing right now is a national vision to move it forward," he says. "The rest of the world is doing it and we need a vision like Obama's."

Federal Transport Minister John Baird says the government is waiting for the technical review before deciding what course of action to follow. Baird's been preoccupied with getting the government's stimulus program into gear and HSR is further down the road.

The technical review is due next February from the Montreal-based EcoTrain Consortium, composed of the firms Dessau, MMM Group, KPMG, Wilbur Smith & Associates and Deutsche Bahn International. The review will evaluate HSR technology and route options, transportation demand forecasts, development and operating costs, environmental and social impacts, financial and economic analyses, implementation scenarios and an action plan.

Another reason to move ahead with the project is that the price tag keeps rising, Langan says. "It was $10 billion in 1995 for Quebec City to Windsor and $20 billion in 2005. How long are we going to postpone this thing? After all it's a 30-year-old idea."

Possible high-speed trains under consideration as part of the Obama proposals include New York-Montreal, Boston-Montreal and the Pacific Northwest to Vancouver. The New York-Montreal service has been suggested in the past as a logical follow up to the Ontario-Quebec corridor.

There's also speculation that a high-speed train could connect New York andChicago via Buffalo raising the possibility of faster service between Toronto and Buffalo.

U.S. Transport Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress that high-speed train service can provide the same kind of benefits that development of a national highway and air travel networks did in the past with a better environmental result. "We face a complex set of challenges in the 21st century – building a robust, green economy, gaining energy independence, reversing global climate change, and fostering more livable, connected communities. These new challenges require creative new transportation solutions.

"A combination of express and regional high-speed corridors, evolving from upgraded, reliable intercity passenger rail service, has proven effective in addressing many of these challenges around the world and in selected U.S. corridors," he said.

In both countries the challenge will be to get the high speed trains out of the political station.

October 16, 2009 — Return to cover.