Friday, July 23, 2010

High-speed rail in Canada: Where to begin?

Possible HSR in Canada (click to enlarge)

Welcome to Canada: The only G8 country without high-speed passenger rail, and one of only four G20 nations similarly lacking. High Speed Rail Canada, a lobby group pushing for the federal government to invest--and invest heavily--in HSR in the country called it Canada's "High Speed Rail Embarassment". But with the United States government investing so heavily in HSR ($8B earmarked as a "initial investment" under the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program [HSIPRP]), and some of the selected HSR corridors including Canadian cities in their plans, can Canada afford not to invest into this?

The U.S. HSIPR project map includes two Canadian cities in their plans: Montreal within the Northeast Region, and Vancouver within the Western Region. But it would only be natural for the Canadian government to look for ways to include other Canadian cities, especially Toronto but also Ottawa, Quebec, and Hamilton in the Northeast Region, and Windsor and Winnipeg in the Midwest Region. The HSIPR project doesn't include programs in the north-central United States, but Canada would obviously also want to look at the cities of Regina, Edmonton, and Calgary.

Over the last few months, High Speed Rail Canada has taken a look at a few different corridors on their website: Montreal-Boston, Montreal-New York, and Toronto-New York. In the process, they also outline the three most pressing issues in building cross-border high-speed rail: The many stakeholders (federal, provincial, state, and municipal governments), customs and the border, and Canada's status as an HSR laggard. They also outline the other potential barriers to each individual line, while also discussing the current state of them, and (of course) the potential benefits to be gained from their implementation. (If you think HSR isn't necessary, read John Parisella's recent chronicle of the 11-hour train ride from Montreal to New York.)

If the Canadian government decides that HSR is a good solution for us--and I've seen very good arguments in favour of HSR--then they would be well-served to take some initiative in the process. Rather than following the US on this ticket and extending American lines across the border to certain cities, Canada could move forward in building Canadian lines to take advantage of the technology that the rest of the G8 nations have enjoyed for so long. Such as a line bringing together the "Tor-Mon-ttawa" mega-region popularized by the work of author Richard Florida (who I've written about before). Uniting the cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa would bring together the first, second, and fourth most-populated municipalities (respectively) in the country, and almost five million Canadians (by 2006 census numbers).

If Quebec and Windsor are included in the line, it's a grand total of 1,267 km by roadway (according to Google Maps), making the three stops en route. It certainly wouldn't be a minor project; a cost in the billions of dollars is fairly certain. But built in phases, as an investment into the future of some of our country's largest and most geographically important cities, it's easy to imagine the many benefits politically, environmentally, financially, and personally.


Tyler said...

The capital outlays required for even most viable sections are simply too large. To pass the cost-benefit test you would have to have very expensive carbon costs. Time savings for passengers are usually a wash because of access and egress times and inconvenience. The only other real benefit is less congestion on highways which is a perverted benefit in that the idea is to make the rail more attractive.

The employment and economic arguments are largely trumped up. Spending billions to put a couple thousand to work on capital for 5 - 10 years isn't a good use of public funds. If your policy objective is to do something about employment then those billions would be better spent elsewhere. Land and facilities located close to the line would see their values increase as the benefits would be capitalized meaning no public benefit. And the number of employees required for the operations of the line is relatively small. Ultimately, almost all of the economic development arguments do not make the case that the increased economic activity is actually incremental.

Bottom line, high speed rail in Canada just doesn't pass the sniff test.

WJM said...

Where to begin?

By scrapping the idea, with the possible exception of the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, and devoting the time, treasure, and technology towards building and expanding rail urban transit in Canada.

That's where.