No will, no way

HynesEdit.JPGBy James G. Hynes

Canada is still saying no to a project our history suggests we should be eagerly embracing. For more than five years (since January 2010), governments in Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City have been sitting on a report that updates previous studies of proposed high-speed rail (HSR) lines from Quebec City to Windsor.
Having commissioned the report a couple of years previously at a media conference where they expressed bubbling enthusiasm for the HSR concept, why are these governments so unenthusiastic about it? They’ve paid $3 million to the independent EcoTrain consortium to tell them something they already knew, but now they don’t want to hear it.
The cheery outlook changed over the time it took to get the report, during which all three governments proceeded to run up huge deficits stimulating a flagging economy, while also discovering new liabilities, like massively leaky water mains and crumbling bridges. So now they don’t want to be told that an HSR line from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto would be profitable at a cost of $9.1 billion for 200-kilometre-per-hour trains, or $11 billion for the real thing, 300-k.p.h. all-electric trains. Stretching the lines east to Quebec City and west as far as Windsor wouldn’t pay for itself, but still might be worth it due to non-financial benefits, such as reduced air pollution and highway congestion, and greater all-weather safety.
So what’s not to like about this? Well, in a booming economy with government balance sheets in a healthy condition, it looks like a no-brainer. Assuming a public-private joint venture, as has been done with many HSR projects elsewhere, the project looks like a horse many a savvy politician might ride to electoral victory. But oops, now the cupboards are getting bare, and there are all sorts of newly hungry mouths to feed. What previously might have been easily done will now take something that has become exceedingly rare in this country: the vision and daring that once built the CPR.
Former Bombardier CEO Laurent Beaudoin, certainly a knowledgeable observer of this scene, put it succinctly. “To do that kind of project,” he said, “you need political will.” That’s what it took to push Canadian rails across this continent, creating what would otherwise be an impossible country. That gargantuan achievement put us in the forefront of railway technology, and made possible the economic ties that still bind us today. Now a Canadian company is still in the forefront, but Bombardier is building its trains everywhere but here.
Faced with this situation, what would John A. Macdonald have done? I think his response might have been different from former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s when he was asked about the HSR report. He said he thought it was time to “pause and reflect on the merits” of such a project. Fortunately for all of us today, John A. wasn’t much good at pausing and reflecting. He was too busy getting things done, come hell or high water. Click here to read more of Jim Hynes on the compelling case for Canadian high speed rail.

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