High speed rail still the technology boost of choice

HynesB88X146.JPGBy James G. Hynes

A recent issue of Corporate Knights, which bills itself as "the magazine for clean capitalism," carried an article bemoaning the lack of action to expand the electrical infrastructure of Canada's most-populated region. And what do you suppose the article says would be the key to shifting a big chunk of our fossil-fuel driven transportation systems over to electricity? You guessed it: a high-speed rail (HSR) line through the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

We've definitely heard this one before, but the case for it now seems more compelling than ever. It's been studied to death by governments, with another report due any day now, and it's also been the subject of elaborate proposals from Bombardier, which happens to be the world's leading manufacturer of HSR equipment. The proposed line would shift vast amounts of freight and passenger traffic from emission-spewing cars, trucks and planes to fast, efficient trains running mainly on renewable hydroelectric power. At the same time, it would also create a major transmission link between the now tenuously-connected Ontario and Quebec power grids, encouraging more of Quebec's surplus hydro power to flow westward, rather than south into New England. A commitment along these lines would also take Ontario out of the awkward position it's now in with regard to its electrical future. New nuclear facilities are mooted as the answer, but Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has balked at the price quoted by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) for a new and unproven reactor design, and no-one else has come forward with a better deal. Even if the price was right, you can't blame OPG for being reluctant to take another waltz with AECL, a vampire of a company that has been sucking blood from the federal government for half a century. The main reason Ontario is out shopping for new nuclear plants now is because the budget-busting ones they've got have proved to be a lot less durable than AECL said they would be. And if that isn't sufficient reason to view AECL's promises with a skeptical eye, how about the fact that the federal government is finally trying to unload all or most of the company? As any reasonable person might expect, the feds have been underwhelmed with offers to take AECL's pie-in-the-sky reactor business off their hands. All they've got are low-ball bids for marginally profitable operations maintaining and refurbishing existing reactors. So if OPG won't dance, AECL is probably, finally, at long last out of luck. They should have a public ceremony, and let Jim Flaherty drive a wooden stake through the corporate seal. But where does that leave OPG? Will this situation persuade them to look eastward for hydroelectric solutions, as Quebec's exportable surplus continues to grow? Probably not. After all, if common sense and a bit of visionary courage were the driving forces behind policy-making in Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec City, this would have happened years ago, and an HSR link from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto might be nearing completion about now. Instead, the concept is about to be honoured by another report recommending it, which will then be ignored in what has become the traditional manner, that is, we all say it's a good idea, and then get back in our cars to join the traffic jam on the 401.

HSR champions needed for tomorrow are stuck in today
The fact that Canada was literally made possible by a transcontinental railway many experts said was impossible now seems to be forgotten. Coast-to-coast rails still bind us, but they have faded into the background of our economic life. Were our leaders today not so much less daring than the men who built that nation-making railroad, they might look to rails once again as the means to a visionary end. It wouldn’t take the extraordinary determination of a MacDonald or a Van Horne to accomplish something worthwhile. In fact, all it would take is the political will to do something that has already been planned and proposed: a high-speed rail link, first from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto, and later from Quebec City to Windsor.
Thrash%20Merchant92X36R.jpgSuch a massive project would clearly require strong national leadership to get off the ground. It would probably take all the money both governments and affected industries could muster; rough estimates at this point are upwards of $20 billion. But that’s the size of the challenge we face today; Canada’s industrial heartlands need massive stimulus now not simply to weather the current storm, but to lay the foundation for a new era of growth.
Driving high-speed rails through Canada’s most densely-populated region is precisely the kind of daring, creative project needed. Just one of the benefits of the link would be to unite a parade of Canada’s established and emergent high-tech companies, enterprises with the potential to take our economy in new directions. Hundreds of them lie along the corridor from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto and on to Kitchener-Waterloo. Efficiently linking these enterprises and the academic and research institutions that serve them would have enormous and long-lasting stimulative effects. Instead of climbing slowly out of recession with leaner, meaner versions of the marginal industries we have now, we could build the backbone for a new and different economic future.
Peggey80X54L.jpgBuilding such a link would also provide a home-grown showcase for the world-class capabilities of a Canadian company, Bombardier, which has built or is building fast-rail systems everywhere but here. Of course, in typically Canadian fashion, the fact that a Quebec-based outfit is the only plausible candidate to build the system here is considered a drawback. If this attitude prevailed in MacDonald’s day, the CPR would never have reached Winnipeg.
With a state-of-the-art system at home, Canada would be in a strong position to get a big slice of the American pie now being cooked up to thread fast-rail systems through the most populated parts of the U.S. So far, however, Canada's huge HSR potential has not found the political champions it needs. Most of them are too busy worrying about how to retain what we already have today to think about what we might gain tomorrow.

HSR is everywhere but here
The HSR pot continues to bubble, if not boil, everywhere but here. California is now moving to claim a big slice of the federal HSR funding Obama announced last month, and it looks like they Velaro70X49R.jpgwant the real thing, i.e., trains that can reach 220 mph (354 kph). They've got a plan to link San Francisco and L.A. pus some inland branches that looks a lot like ours to link Montreal and Toronto. The projected cost of $45 billion is huge, but it looks like peanuts compared to U.S. estimates for a "national" HSR system of $250 to $500 billion. The folks at Bombardier must be drooling all over their desks. And then there's a new concept being mooted in Arizona to link Phoenix and Powell90X39R.jpgTucson with a full 220-mph line that would get its juice from solar panels built like a roof over the entire line. This makes sense in a sun-baked desert environment, so look for the Arabs to catch onto this as an answer to the question of what to do when their oil runs out. And meanwhile, the Japanese have an answer to the French TGV that now holds the world speed record. Kawasaki is about to roll out a new train capable of 217 mph (349 kph), virtually matching the TGV's performance. It also features HSRGuidotoni68X54L.jpgan advanced kinetic energy recovery system that converts momentum back into electricity while braking. Commentators in the U.S. are now complaining that the present Obama plan doesn't go far enough, because many proposed lines won't reach true HSR speeds. As HSR technology continues to improve, the economic argument for it will only get stronger. How long can Canadian politicians continue to ignore this? Probably forever, if the current state of affairs is any guide.

Showcase could attract U.S. billions
Serie103-124X28R.jpgThe Obama administration announced in April its intention to invest US$13 billion in high-speed rail (HSR) projects. These funds are just the first step towards the ultimate goal: a network of HSR services threading through the country’s most populous regions, linking chains of major cities.
In doing this, the Americans are following the lead of just about every other industrialized country in the world. Worldwide, governments are deciding that wider highways and bigger airports are not the solution to their Neil%20Pulling98X32R.jpgcongested and polluted transportation corridors. Instead, reliable, fuel-efficient HSR services in Europe and Southeast Asia are dramatically easing both road and air traffic congestion, to the great benefit of regional economies and their environments.
Quite a few of these HSR systems were built by Bombardier, now a world leader in the field. Yet there is not a single mile of genuine HSR service at work in Canada today. This nation was literally made possible by a railway, and still relies on rails as an economic backbone. But Canada is now a railroading laggard, while a Thrash%20Merchant92X36R.jpgCanadian company has been busy building HSR systems in Europe, Asia and even, in a rather compromised form, the U.S.A.
The American Acela system can’t provide true HSR performance (200 kph plus), and many of the new services planned by the Obama administration will also fall short of that velocity threshold. So the U.S. isn’t quite embracing HSR, and the door remains open for Canada to claim that distinction in North America with a state-of-the-art system. It isn’t as if we would have to figure out how to do it. The technological and engineering capabilities are already at hand, including various options.
Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s TGV, like most HSR trains, are driven by electric power drawn from overhead wires, which add considerably to the cost of building the lines. Given Quebec’s surplus of hydro power, this would probably be the best way to power HSR trains there. But given Ontario’s costly nuclear and polluting thermal power sources, Bombardier has an option: a “Jet Train” that efficiently generates its own juice with a 5,000-horsepower turbine engine. This may also be the best option for some of the Peggey80X54R.jpgU.S. lines through power-limited regions.
If we were to make the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor a showcase of our world-class HSR technology, we just might get a piece of the billions the U.S. is beginning to pour into fast trains. That would be bold, creative and opportunistic, attributes that are in short supply in our seats of government today. While a Canadian company spreads the benefits of HSR around the world, travellers among Canada's largest cities continue to sit in traffic jams on the way to the airport. In what was once a land of daring pioneers, who built for the future and got us to today, apparently we're stalled.

Biting the bullet builds mega economies
To understand why a high-speed rail line though Canada’s heartland is just what we need right now, take a look at what fast trains have done elsewhere in the world.
Japan pioneered the concept with its Shinkansen “bullet” trains decades ago, and it’s clear today that without this congestion-busting infrastructure, Powell90X39R.jpgJapan could not possibly have developed what continues to be the world’s second-largest economy.
In Europe, the French and the Germans have not only followed the Japanese lead, they have surpassed it. France’s TGV now holds the speed record (574kph) for conventional, rail-bound trains, and a German magnetic levitation train has gone faster still. The fast-rail “chunnel” link between Paris and London is now well-established, and other European high-speed Velaro70X49R.jpgsystems are at work in locations from Scandinavia to Spain. China has also joined the parade, both with high-speed rail projects, and with a German-designed mag-lev line linking downtown Shanghai with the city’s airport.
Virtually all these ventures are delivering major economic benefits. The TGV link between Lyon and Paris, for example, has proved to be four times as successful as projected, virtually abolishing air travel between those Serie103-124X28L.jpgcities. High-speed rail services stimulate inter-city commerce, promote business expansions, improve real estate values, ease demographic pressures and encourage investments—and they do it all while lowering the affected region’s CO2 output.
Fast train lines are five to six times more fuel-efficient per passenger mile than automobiles or commercial aircraft, and also consume far less land area than highways handling equivalent volumes of traffic. Nor are they any more expensive to build than the multi-lane freeways and mega-airports we now rely on to get us from city to city. Faster, cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly...what’s not to like?
Peggey80X54R.jpgThe corridor from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto contains more than half Canada’s population, and provides an even greater share of our total economic output. A new, high-speed transportation backbone is just what the region needs now to revitalize its cities and propel its economy into the 21st century. The equivalent American corridor from Boston to Washington is already equipped with North America’s fastest train service (built by Bombardier, Canada's world leader Neil%20Pulling98X32L.jpgin fast trains everywhere but here at home), though it can’t achieve true high-speed performance (200kph or more) because of rail conditions and other limitations. Running high-speed rails through our less densely-populated corridor wouldn’t be so costly or complicated. And whatever the cost, global experience shows that this is a type of investment that pays handsome returns for decades after it’s made.
So what are we waiting for? The only thing lacking seems to be a leader with the courage and vision to seize the moment.

HSR hostage to hydrocarbon legacy
Today's G&M brings me up to date on where Ignatieff stands on high speed rail (HSR) for the Windsor-Quebec corridor, via a garbled column by the ROB's Quebec reporter, Konrad Yakabuski, who often displays an anti-Quebec tilt. He says Ignatieff's endorsement of HSR is just political HSRPowell90X39R.jpgposturing. (Evidently, Ignatieff's new book True Patriot Love makes the same argument I've been making, i.e., a daring gamble on rails created this country, and we need to rediscover that creative attitude now.) What's interesting is the reason Yakabuski says Ignatieff is just blowing smoke. He claims the HSR project won't happen because we'd have to bail out Air Canada, Westjet and Porter when demand sank for their Montreal-Toronto services! Right, and by the same token, we'd better stop developing hybrid and all-electric cars, or we're going to have to bail out Suncor, Imperial Oil, etc., etc., and all the makers of gas-guzzling cars and trucks. Let's not make any reckless moves HSR%20Thrash%20Merchant71X2L7.jpginto more efficient technology, because our first priority is obviously to keep that carbon dioxide spewing! This argument is easily dismissed as idiotic, but his second is stranger still. He takes as a given that an HSR link HSRVelaro58X41R.jpgbetween Montreal and Toronto would be "eternally unprofitable." How he manages to reason that air travel between these cities can be profitable, but vastly more efficient HSR somehow wouldn't be, is truly dazzling. Of course, he HSRGuidotoni68X54L.jpgcites no evidence for this view, because there is none. Instead, he compares the Canadian project to Spain's much larger investment in a complex national HSR system, rather than with directly-comparable projects such as France's hugely-successful Paris-Lyon TGV. So nay-sayers do exist, but if their objections are as silly as Yakabuski's, it looks like Ignatieff may be serious about HSR, and willing to make it a prominent plank in his platform.

Dare to create on a grand scale
The federal and provincial governments of Canada are about to start pouring gushers of money Neil%20Pulling98X32R.jpginto our faltering economy, in order to save us from revisiting the Great Depression of the 1930s. This money is supposed to do three things, usually treated in rapidly descending order of priority.
The first priority is, of course, to save as many existing jobs as possible, or quickly create similar new ones to replace those lost. This is done by, for instance, bailing out companies that would otherwise collapse, or creating new construction jobs for otherwise idled tradesmen.
The second priority, doomed to be honoured more in political rhetoric than in “shovel-ready” cash outlays, is to ask for more from the investments made in pursuit of the first priority. Don’t just bail out the dying company, restructure it so it can live again on its own. Don’t just pave the old road again, make some improvements along the way. Rather than simply preserving what already exists, leave us with a little more. Thrash%20Merchant92X36R.jpg
The third, and almost entirely neglected, priority is to use the current crisis not simply to cope, but to create. This means looking beyond job preservation, or even new job creation in conventional terms. It requires a large, bold move that will focus the entire economic recovery in a new direction, opening the way to a future the status quo, however well preserved, can never provide.
Guidotoni68X54L.jpgOrdinarily, this third priority would receive the almost total neglect it now enjoys in Canada simply because no such grand Serie103-124X28R.jpgproject presents itself. But that isn’t the case at all. A project that fits the requirements of all three priorities is staring us in the face. What is it? A high-tech, high-speed rail link, first from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto, and ultimately from Quebec City all the way to Windsor.
This is a project that has been mooted for years. Major studies have been done, and another is underway right now. Current leaders in both Quebec and Ontario have pronounced themselves in favour, but enthusiasm is notably lacking at the federal level.
Peggey80X54L.jpgAs matters now stand, our governments will treat this recession as if it were an earthquake or a hurricane, an unavoidably destructive event from which we should only expect to recover by returning to the status quo. But a recession is actually a symptom of a need for change, for transformation that will replace what is failing with something new.
Creation is always fraught with uncertainties, but the negative consequences of failing to create are all too certain. Is this still the improbable country of MacDonald and Van Horne, a land of men who dare to create on a grand scale?

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