More on high-speed rail

The Montreal Gazette is reporting today that Michael Ignatieff and the federal Liberals will make a promise in their election platform to build a high-speed train. This seems to be breaking news, and we know what politician’s promises are worth these days, so at this point it’s very vague. But the timing is interesting.

Siemens modified locomotive, the Sapsan

Siemens' modified locomotive, the Sapsan (Canwest News)

This month, Siemens has been testing a modified version of their Velaro train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. The Velaro, which has been running successfully in Spain, has been modified for the Russian route because of special concerns due to the cold climate. According to Mario Péloquin, director of Siemens Mobility in Canada, the Russian trains (known as Sapsan or “peregrine falcon” in Russia) have extra insulation, a more powerful heating system, and air intakes on the roof instead of the sides (to prevent the sucking in of snow). It is the only high-speed train (currently built) that can handle up to -50 degrees Celcius temperatures.

Those of you familiar with the high-speed rail debate in Canada will know that one of the main knocks again the implementation of high-speed rail in Canada is that no train exists that could run reliably during our cold winters (and maybe even southern Ontario summers). Sure, companies were willing to explore the idea of making modifications to their trains, but not without a significant up-front commitment. Also, companies like Bombardier clung to old ideas like their JetTrain, which used diesel turbine engines instead of solely electric power. Bombardier’s idea was that since the willingness to replace infrastructure didn’t seem to be there, they would build a train that could operate on the already-built rails (with a few modifications for curves). However, the attitude was, if we’re going to build a high-speed rail system, we should probably build a real high-speed rail system (aka nobody likes diesel).

Now that Siemens has actually modified a locomotive so that it is suitable for our climate, the argument described above is no longer acceptable. While he certainly is biased, Péloquin said “that Russian model is a perfect fit for Canada”.

So what of the other main criticism of high-speed rail, the cost? Well, let’s take a look at what it’s costing the Russian railway authority. According to the New York Times: “the Russian state railway spent $485 million upgrading the track and $926 million for eight Sapsan trains and a 30-year service agreement…”
The trip is about 645 km, which is approximately the trip from London to Ottawa. All told, it’s $1.4B for the Russian project, or $2.1M per kilometre. Without doing the whole economic analysis (sorry, I just don’t have the time, and the governments of Ontario and Quebec aren’t paying me $3M), it seems like a pretty reasonable investment to me.

With the Russians and even the Americans now getting involved in high-speed rail development, you might wonder if the Canadian government is beginning to feel left out. You may be right. Sometime in September members of the House have gone down to the states for train rides and meetings about the US’s investments in rail. Somehow, I’m pessimistic about the result of the trip. Sure, they will come home singing praises of HSR, but will it lead to action?

With Canadian leaders rapidly running out of excuses, the time for high speed rail in Canada may finally be upon us.

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