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Canada slow to build
high-speed rail routes

By Kevin Bourne, Canada Editor*

12 March 2011: Since its origins in Italy in the late 1930s high speed rail, also known as HSR, has come a long way. Today there are 20 countries around the world with a high speed rail system, but Canada, home to one of the world’s leading train manufacturers in Bombardier, is not one of them. In fact, Canada is the only country in the G8 group (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK, USA) without at least one HSR or express line.

There are obvious benefits to high speed rail. It is environmentally friendly, giving people the opportunity to use the train instead of their cars on long distance trip. It also provides healthy competition to the air travel industry, keeping fairs relatively low. This would be welcomed in Canada where air travel is expensive relative to other countries around the world.

Up to this point Asia and Europe have dominated the high speed rail race while North America has lagged behind. Why is Canada so far behind in the game? Is it our conservatism in incurring debt, which has become our claim to fame during the global economic downturn? Is it that we like to work in partnership with, or take our cues from, the United States?

Over the past four decades Canada has flirted on and off with high speed rail. In the 1960s CN Rail, Canada’s largest railway, added the UAC TurboTrain to its fleet, which reached speeds up to 200 kilometres per hour, serving its Toronto-Montréal route. Unfortunately, CN’s budding high speed service suffered from lengthy interruptions due to design problems and poor track quality. As a result the trains only reached speeds of 160 kilometres per hour.

In the 1970s a consortium of several companies saw the Bombardier LRC train, inspired by Britain’s InterCity125, as a potential HSR vehicle to be used in Canada. The train entered full operation in Via Rail’s fleet in 1981, linking cities in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor. Canada’s high speed rail plans were thwarted again due to line signalling regulations which limited the trains to speeds of 170 kilometres per hour. The Bombardier LRC was the world's first active tilting train in commercial use which would have made Canada a leader and innovator in high speed rail.

In 1998, Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin formed a consortium proposing a 320 kilometre per hour high speed train from Toronto to Quebec City with interurban stops in Kingston, Ottawa and Montréal. In later years Bombardier would propose this route again, but unfortunately, these plans never moved forward.

In recent years the momentum towards HSR has been picking up in Canada. In April 2008 a citizen’s group called High Speed Rail in Canada was founded to educate Canadians on the benefits of HSR, specifically to Canada.

Over the years there were four HSR routes that were widely discussed:
• Vancouver - Seattle
• Montréal - New York - Boston
• Calgary - Edmonton
• Québec - Windsor (via Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, and Montréal)

The latter has been seen as the logical first step towards a true high speed rail service. As the most densely-populated region of Canada, the Québec-Windsor corridor is home to over 18 million people; approximately half of Canada's population. It is also home to Ottawa, the national capital, and three of the country’s four largest metropolitan areas- Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa–Gatineau. The corridor is the most competitive air travel route in the country and is already the main focus for the Via Rail service.

On 10 January 2008, the premiers of Ontario and Québec announced they would conduct a long awaited joint feasibility study into high speed rail in the Québec City-Windsor Corridor with the Federal Government agreeing to participate. In February 2009, the contract was awarded to a consortium made up of Dessau, MMM Group, KPMG, Wilbur Smith & Associates and Deutsche Bahn International. Although the study was expected to take a year it has been delayed significantly.

The Québec transport minister, Sam Hamad, has publicly expressed his intention to discuss plans for this high speed rail corridor with French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, on his trip to Paris in the coming weeks. In 2008 the French Government provided Morocco with a $625 million loan to help finance a high speed rail line between Tangiers and Casablanca. The project was designed, built, operated and maintained by French firms. The Québec transport minister is interested in seeing if the French Government would send funding their way. According to an engineer at Bombardier, the project would cost approximately $18 billion.

Despite the density and profitability of the Québec City-Windsor Corridor, Vancouver will be the first Canadian city to get a true taste of high speed rail. In January of 2010, Washington State was awarded $590 million in economic stimulus funding by the United States federal government to move forward with the Seattle-Vancouver route with the funds arriving this week. Montréal may be the next city with high speed rail with the United States Government financing a Boston-New York with a rumoured connection to La Belle Ville. Although these projects will not have as much of an economic impact on Canada as the Québec City-Windsor route, it is hoped that the Obama Administration’s plans for high speed rail will cause the Canadian government to take action.

It is not due to a lack of political will at the provincial level or citizen engagement that Canada has trailed the world in high speed rail. In October 2009, EKOS Research Associates surveyed 1,647 Canadians ages 16 and older to gauge support for high speed rail in Canada. The results found that 80 per cent of respondents supported the idea, including 62 per cent who “strongly supported" it and 6 per cent who opposed it.

So why is the Canadian government seemingly not on board? With the Obama Administration moving forward with plans and financing for high speed rail it rules out our government’s tendency to follow in the footsteps of the United States. I believe that our inability to become a major player in high speed rail can be attributed to our conservatism and youth. Canada is a very young country. We have only been an independent nation since 1967. We are the youngest nation in the G8 and, aside from the United States, the only colony; the other nations were the colonizers. Standing up on our own two feet on the international stage is pretty new to Canada.

Once the feasibility study is completed in the coming months or years, it will be up to the Federal Government to determine whether Canada will continue to be an onlooker in a field where it should be dominant. They alone will determine whether the study will be shelved with the other dozen favourable studies or if we will finally take action.

The provinces, residents, the private sector, including Bombardier, and the United States are ready. Is the Federal Government of Canada ready?

*Kevin Bourne was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and is now a resident of Ottawa, Canada. Prior to moving to the Capital, Kevin operated a small consulting firm assisting small businesses and non-profits in Policy Development, Organizational Development, and Communications. His passion for cities came about as he travelled and worked all over South Western Ontario. Most recently Kevin interned as a Communications & Operations Assistant on Parliament Hill. In 2007, he graduated from Glendon College, York University with a BA in Political Science and a Bilingual Certificate in Public Administration & Policy. He founded and maintains the blog Reinventing Ottawa.

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