Friday, April 17, 2009

The Great Canadian Railroad Policy

Over the past few months, participants on the Liberal Party's new 'En Famille' forum have been asked to discuss, vote on, and prioritize over a hundred individual policy resolutions. The process was new, participation was relatively low, and so it was only considered to be a 'consultative', non-binding process - to the frustration of many.

Still, there has been a relatively good correlation between the most recommended proposals on En Famille and those the Party has chosen to move forward with at the convention. In fact, of the top twenty prioritized policies, only five didn't make it to the final cut.

There is one resolution that everyone seems to be very excited about. It was number one on the priority list, was one of the most actively discussed, and will almost certainly be approved at the convention:

#135. Development of an Integrated Transportation Policy.

WHEREAS Canada was built on the railway;

WHEREAS transportation is a large and diverse dub section, accounting for 26% of Canada’s GHG emissions in 2005; and,

WHEREAS the health, economic and environmental benefits of improved public transportation service have been extensively studied and are well established:

WHEREAS railways are more economical and environmental than highways;

WHEREAS Via Rail is a Crown Corporation providing inter-urban passenger train services to the people of Canada;

BE IT RESOLVED that the Liberal Party of Canada encourage the federal government to implement a fully integrated transportation policy to allow direct links between airport terminals, inner city bus terminals, light rail and urban transit systems with passenger rail services; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Liberal Party of Canada encourage the federal government to support, promote, and expand the role of passenger rail in every possible way across Canada; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Liberal Party of Canada encourage the federal government to provide funds so that rail companies that lease track to VIA Rail improve their track infrastructure to enable existing passenger rail equipment to operate at higher speeds, thereby reducing travel time and also to double track to encourage the simultaneous movement of passenger and freight trains.

It's such a simple, even old-fashioned idea, and yet the mere mention of the word 'rail' in any of the forums - environment, infrastructure, rural and regional issues - would cause the whole board to light up like a Christmas tree. It's like some deep-rooted cultural memory of our once great national rail system is being re-awakened. And it all ties into what Ignatieff has been talking about in terms of strengthening east-west trade and energy routes.

On top of all the economic, environmental and national unity benefits to a revitalization of our freight and passenger rail system, there is the added political benefit of having a signature issue for the Liberals that the Conservative government seems to have no interest in whatsoever.

OTTAWA – Transport Minister John Baird yesterday appeared to pour cold water on the idea of high-speed rail along the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, saying so far it has proved too expensive and would serve too few people.

"I suspect it's about density and cost," said Baird, adding that a high-speed link between Quebec and Ontario that has been talked about for decades could cost up to $30 billion, and serve 16 million people.

Sigh. Meanwhile, the Americans are getting hot on rail. Just yesterday, President Obama laid out his plan for an upgraded, high-speed rail system for the U.S.:

What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It's been happening for decades. The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here.

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations. In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined. China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now. And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next: a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it's being done; it's just not being done here.

There's no reason why we can't do this. This is America. There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders. Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system –- and everybody stands to benefit.

Perhaps the best thing of all is that not only would such a policy benefit everyone, it could easily be supported by everyone, regardless of region, socio-economic status or political affiliation. Even my father, the classic Upper Canadian True Blue Conservative, thinks that this is exactly the kind of sensible, practical policy we should be pursuing.

I'll be voting Yes on 135.

UPDATE: And here's a story about the kind of bureaucratic bullshit that could 'de-rail' the whole plan (H/T to Bob Broughton's Blog)


  1. Although it "sounds" good, you have to remember the math involved in Baird's vs. Obama's statements. If you assume that the rough figures of 32B to serve 16M people are correct ... that's $2,000 per person here in Canada. With a US population roughly 10 times that of Canada, that gets reduced to $200 person, far more affordable and easy to swallow in these economic times.

  2. Yeah, but it doesn't quite work that way either because we aren't spread out evenly across the country. The Windsor-Quebec corridor has as high or higher a concentration of people as most of the areas Obama is talking about. For instance, if you look at the map on the related White House blog post, they are proposing a high-speed rail line through the Pacific North-West, serving a population of less than 10 million - maybe 12 if they hook up with Vancouver. Other lines are proposed through Texas/Oklahoma, south Florida, the Gulf Coast, upstate New York - all areas with lower populations and densities than the 401/St. Lawrence corridor.

    All in all, the U.S. is talking about over a dozen high-speed rail corridors. We're talking about one or two to start. That's proportional.

  3. Works for me as far as the ambition goes. I'd like to take it further by restoring regular, normal-speed service to a number of communities that lost their VIA connection over the last couple of decades, too.

  4. Great to see at least some folk are starting to realise that rail (particuarly high speed rail) is part of the answer to many of our transportation (and environmental) problems. That they should connect directly with other transportation hubs such as airports is, to me, a no brainer.
    I have always thought that the selling off of smaller rail corridors acros Ontario (and else where so far as I know) was the most short sighted move that rail companys (supported by governments) ever made!

  5. CN, according to the latest Trains, wants to abandon a direct line connecting Saskatoon and Calgary. So this is definitely not confined to Ontario.

    This may also be an opportunity for passenger rail service to be properly restored to two key western cities.

    If the New Conservatives went for this to play to their base, I could happily let them steal this particular idea.

  6. "I suspect it's about density and cost," said Baird, adding that a high-speed link between Quebec and Ontario that has been talked about for decades could cost up to $30 billion, and serve 16 million people.16 million people... If I'm correct, that's about 50% of the population of Canada.

    Yes. Clearly it won't serve enough people. Half of the country's population isn't enough people.