Canada quickly falling behind on high-speed rail

Today, American president Barack Obama announced what was billed as a “down payment” on the American plan for high speed rail throughout the country. More than $8 billion in grants were made to various projects throughout the U.S. (see Y. Freemark’s map here). The big recipients are California ($2.3B), whose voters have already approved state funding for HSR; Florida ($1.2B), where a new rail line will be constructed between Tampa and Orlando; and Illinois/Missouri ($1.1B), where improvements will be made to the line between Chicago and St. Louis. While many of the projects being funded are simple speed and service improvements, they are a positive first step for a long-neglected transportation system.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, inaction and general malaise on the part of various levels of government seems to continue. Indeed, when the topic is brought up by an adventurous reporter, politicians generally agree it’s a good idea, and something to investigate. This is with the exception of Stephen Harper, who is conspicuously silent on the issue, and who Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty says is opposed to it because his government believes Canada is “not ready for it”. This is despite the fact that Canadians overwhelmingly support the idea of new HSR lines. The real problem is, various HSR projects in Canada have been investigated through full-fledged studies too many times, without any real commitments. According to The Walrus, no less than sixteen studies have been initiated and/or completed since 1973 on the Windsor-Quebec City corridor itself.

Prime locations for HSR in Canada include the Edmonton-Calgary, Vancouver-Seattle, Montreal-Boston/New York, and numerous incarnations of the Windsor-Quebec corridor. Two corridors have been studied: the Alberta corridor, whose market assessment study is complete; and the Windsor-Quebec corridor, which has been studied to death (see for copies of the studies). It is enough to make one cynical about the prospect of HSR in Canada, but the National Post says it is “decision time” for HSR and North America is a “new frontier”. The article also gives us a reminder on the Canada-Quebec-Ontario feasibility study update:

The final draft of the report on the corridor is due next month (February 2010), after which time the federal government, Quebec and Ontario are expected to “develop a joint strategy,” said briefing notes prepared for Ontario’s deputy minister of transportation on May 20, 2009, obtained under Freedom of Information legislation. “It is anticipated that the study will be released to the public along with the preferred strategy.”

The fact that it is somewhere on the agenda at all is hope; but it remains to be seen how committed governments will be through their “joint strategy”. It is mystifying that it has taken so long for politicians to grasp the economic and efficiency benefits that result for high speed rail systems. Mr Obama seems to know this; his $8B program is specifically targeted to create long-term, skilled jobs and strengthen the economic base by making the transportation network more efficient. Why this is not immediately evident to Canadian politicians remains a mystery, but meanwhile Canada is rapidly falling behind America and the rest of the world in HSR investment.

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