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March 5, 2009

It’s time, finally, for Windsor-Quebec City high-speed rail rink

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The recent news that the government will study — again — the possibility of a high-speed rail link in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor brought happy laughter to those of us who are convinced that rail transport is an important tool in our fight against traffic congestion, pollution, and an air passenger system that provides every passenger with just enough space to satisfy your average sardine.

But trying to count the number of studies that have already been done is enough to make anyone cry in frustration, or amazement at the political machinations that so often contaminate decision-making processes.

A couple of people counted a dozen studies since 1973. A few other people recalled unsuccessful attempts to get studies started, as well, so the exact number of studies or attempted studies is anyone’s guess. None has moved the process along.

So now we have another one — this one costing $3 million — and one can hope that this time something will come of it.

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

Certainly, the timing couldn’t be better. We need to stimulate our economy, reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and high-speed rail can help with all three.

Also, the new government in the United States is committed to spending US$1.3 billion (U.S.) to upgrade Amtrak service, and US$8.4 billion for high-speed rail projects.

Several groups in the U.S. are pushing for a high-speed network centred on Chicago, with corridors radiating outward like spokes in a wheel. One of those corridors would run to Detroit, right across the river from Windsor. Linking the two corridors would provide high-speed rail from Quebec City to Chicago, with further links from Chicago to the south, southwest and west.

Imagine! A high-speed rail link that would be continental in scope! It’s enough to make a stodgy Canadian squirm, and enough to make business travellers eager to climb aboard. How fast would the trains be? Think something on the order of 300 kilometres an hour.

But first, the new study group — called the EcoTrain Consortium — will take a year to look at route options, the sorts of trains that are available, transportation demand forecasts, and development, operating and land costs. Transport Minister John Baird has said his department will also take the results of previous studies into consideration so that a fairly good cost forecast is available before deciding whether or not to proceed.

It won’t be cheap. Baird calls it “a gigantic $40-million to $30-billion project,” and warned that it certainly couldn’t be ready to go in the next two years. That means it would fall outside the scope of the present infrastructure stimulus money. Besides, the project would involve both Quebec and Ontario provincial governments as well as the feds. There would be no snap decisions there.

But think of the stimulus the project would provide — both during the construction phase, and then during the years of operation.

I’ve written about the proposal by the Brookings Institution to create a trans-border economic area covering the Great Lakes Basin. High-speed rail fits nicely into that concept — especially if it links to American corridors.

It also fits nicely into a recent report on Ontario’s economic future prepared by Roger Martin and Richard Florida of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. That report spoke of the need to create more links with other areas as an important aid in bringing growth to the Ontario economy.

Yes, such a rail corridor will cost a lot of money. That’s always one of the things that has held it back. But it’s time to shake off our “poor little Canada” mentality, and do something bold.

The Quebec City-Windsor corridor would be a start.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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