Tuesday, January 15, 2008

High speed rail, the way to go

Last week, the Ontario and Québec governments said they are looking again at the idea of a high speed rail link to connect major cities from Windsor to Québec City; the focus of course being on the run between Toronto and Montréal.

Except mostly for commuters, train travel still seems so exotic to Canadians. It shouldn't be. It should be a serious mode of commerce. It is for freight and with some adjustments it could be for passengers as well.

There are two problems holding back development of "The Corridor," as it's often called. One is that freight trains own the rails and lease space to passenger trains on a space available basis and at often exorbitant rates. Either VIA Rail should demand lower lease rates, or the transportation agency should require a dedicated corridor for trains. I noticed on a trip to Montréal that the CP and CN lines run side by side for most of the run, but at most times three of the four tracks were empty.

Two is significant infrastructure improvements. We don't necessarily need seamless track, fibreglass ties and a concrete roadbed, as we see on high speed lines in Europe. We do, however, need to get rid of all the level crossings and replace them with grade separations. Conservative (that's small-c) estimates to do that are pegged at $2 to 4 billion. This would be a benefit to freight trains as well, who wouldn't have to worry about vehicles getting stranded on, or trying to beat the train at, crossings anymore. And such a price tag is certainly more palatable than the $18 billion that is often cited to do a gold plated system.

Whether it's diesel, diesel electric or all electric is irrelevant; the point is we need a viable alternative to the airports. Despite quick check-in services for the Pearson-Trudeau flight it can still take almost as much time to travel as the express train -- of which there is only one per day (the rest are local or semi-express trains). Plus the trains go between downtowns and the airports certainly do not.

The point is, this is something we can't afford to do. The 401 / A-20 corridor can have only so many lanes and the right of way is filling up. We have to get passengers out of their vehicles for inter-city trips and into trains. It's good for the environment, and it's time to put an end to the "Are We There Yet" syndrome because kids would be too enraptured by the changing scenery to even care to ask.

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