Reading the signals on high-speed rail

The public policy debate over high-speed rail in Canada was spurred earlier this year by a series of symposia by the lobby group High Speed Rail Canada in a number of cities. These included Kitchener on Jan. 30, Toronto on April 25 and London on May 28. In addition, there have been public hearings by a parliamentary standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities. But let’s not fool ourselves — the biggest single boost for this issue is the apparent readiness of U.S. President Barack Obama to blend HSR into the mix of America’s transportation alternatives.

One of Bombardier's high speed trains
One of Bombardier's high-speed trains

Interest in HSR in Ottawa has been, shall we say, restrained. Even a small system in Ontario’s Windsor-Quebec City corridor or between Calgary and Edmonton would cost billions to build (special track must be laid on a custom track bed) and maintain (because of the speeds involved, careful track inspection and repair is a neverending task).

Environmentalists love the concept for obvious reasons. And High Speed Rail Canada’s travelling road show earlier this year was arranged with the assistance of municipalities, economic development boards and other groups that are likely to benefit if Canada were to dip its toe into the pool. But not everyone embraces the idea.

As I stated in a newspaper column shortly after the London symposium, I think HSR’s time has come. However, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Maclean’s, expressed the view this week that high-speed rail in Canada is a bad idea — now and for the foreseeable future. The concept, at least as applied to Canada, is “insane,” he says, repeatedly foisted on politicians and the public by people and interests that are “impervious to reality.”

Now comes word that the Ontario Transportation Ministry is about to begin a survey among users of the heavily travelled Highway 401 to get their views on high-speed rail. (This comes a day after the same government promised rebates to people who buy electric cars, which the Toronto Star, at least, says is a questionable scheme.)

Canadian companies such as Bombardier have been building high-speed rail cars and locomotives for European and Asian systems for years. There’s just no market for them in North America. And according to the Canadian Steel Producers Association, there are currently no manufacturers of steel rails in Canada.

But the public debate over whether Canada should get on track toward the driving of a new “last spike” on a high-speed rail plan is a timely and welcome one.

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