Once Upon a Time, the Line Followed the River
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Once Upon a Time, the Line Followed the River

Photo by antoninodattola.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, much was made of Joe Biden’s scrappy devotion to his blue-collar roots. A sudden widower and bereaved parent within weeks of his 1972 Senate win, his ensuing six terms—thirty-six years—were divided between the halls of Washington and caring for his two surviving sons in Delaware, riding Amtrak for ninety minutes in either direction to balance the demands of both. So when the White House announced its “vision for a new era in rail” on April 16, jointly declared by Biden, President Obama, and U.S Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood, the vice president anecdotally chimed in to underscore the strategy’s importance. “Everyone knows railways are the best way to connect communities to each other,” he said, “and as a daily rail commuter for over thirty-five years, this announcement is near and dear to my heart.”
In America, the plan earmarks eight billion dollars of the American Recovery and Re-investment Act as a “down payment to jump-start a potential world-class passenger rail system,” identifying ten possible high-speed rail corridors: California, Pacific Northwest, South Central, Gulf Coast, the Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire, and Northern New England, with opportunities for the Washington, D.C.–Boston Northeast Corridor—the nation’s only existing high-speed rail service—to compete for additional funding. Beyond the projected energy efficiency of such a vast rail network, Obama asserted that “A major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve.”
“High-speed rail,” the president proclaimed, “is long overdue.” Same goes for Canada.

A map of proposed high-speed rail corridors in the United States. Image courtesy of the United States Government.

“President Obama is on the right course in having the USA invest in modern high-speed rail,” says Paul Langan, founder of High Speed Rail Canada. In California, it was estimated that the introduction of Obama’s train system would create more than 450,000 permanent jobs, streamline the regional economy, and create new opportunities and new industry for a skilled workforce. Canada, especially its beleaguered manufacturing sector, would benefit from a similar transportation overhaul. “The last [High-Speed Rail] study in 1995 by the Canadian, Ontario, and Quebec governments,” Langan tells Torontoist, “stated that 10,500 jobs would be created per year over the construction period. It also stated that an output would be that government debt would be reduced by $6.5 billion after the full implementation of the Ontario/Quebec HSR corridor.”
The Ontario/Quebec Corridor, a route linking Windsor with Montreal, joins a high-speed link connecting Edmonton with Calgary as one of the most likely candidates for a Canadian passenger line. “The business cases have already been made,” Langan says. “The only thing lacking is the political will to move forward, especially at the federal government level.”
With the Tories’ track record, the government’s resistance isn’t surprising in the least. But as Langan tells Torontoist, the biggest obstacle preventing the introduction of more progressive transportation networks may be cultural rather than political. “The biggest problem that we have to overcome,” he says, “is that Canada is culturally challenged when it comes to high-speed rail. The fact that people have never been exposed to a modern, reliable high-speed passenger train service makes it difficult to sell the concept in Canada.”
“I don’t know how many times I have given presentations to people about high-speed rail, where all the people do is complain about how bad VIA Rail is—e.g., slow trains, running late, infrequent schedules, too expensive to ride, etc.” Noting his organization’s role in educating the Canadian public on the benefits of high-speed rail, he says, “I try and get people to think outside of their past cultural experiences with VIA Rail and about something new. Thankfully, due to the internet and many people traveling to Europe and Asia, there are a growing number of people that are aware of high-speed rail and want Canada to have a modern high-speed passenger rail system.”

Two Eurostar high-speed trains in London, UK. Photo by justaslice.

The benefits, they’d likely say, are too many to ignore. Apart from expanding industry and kick-starting the economy at the local level, high-speed rail introduces a third travel option apart from driving or flying, reduces national dependence on fossil fuels, and consumes a third less energy per passenger mile than cars. In America alone, the construction of high-speed rail lines on all federally designated corridors could knock six billion pounds of carbon dioxide off that country’s annual output.
Somewhat ironically, the Obama Administration repeatedly invokes President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the father of the American interstate highway system, as its rail strategy’s historical forebear: by revolutionizing automobile infrastructure in the post-war period, Ike changed the way Americans get around. The way Langan sees it, however, a continent-wide obsession with the car and the labyrinthine web of roads and highways that followed constituted “fifty years of bad planning,” the fallout of which affected Canada as severely as anywhere in the lower forty-eight—reducing North American passenger rail to a “cruel joke.”
“In my own view, dependence on the automobile has led to an environmental and health crisis in Ontario that has to be addressed,” he tells us. “There are very real human health costs associated with exposure to toxic air pollutants caused by automobiles such as respiratory disease and cancer. When we implement high-speed rail in Canada, we will play a substantial role in reducing the environmental and health crises caused by auto-dependency.” And once implemented, he says, citing the findings of the 1995 High Speed Rail study, “40% of ridership would come from people currently using the automobile.”

An Amtrak Acela high-speed train arrives via the Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by K_Gradinger.

While those changes would play out in the long term, Langan reminds us, the economic effects of development and production promise greater immediacy, boosting a flagging manufacturing sector in much the same way that wind farm production would. “The Bombardier rail car plant in Thunder Bay,” he says, “and the locomotive plant in London are two examples of rail-related industries that could exist in more Ontario cities if we moved to a more multi-modal approach. High-speed rail, light rail, streetcars and monorail are new options for industry in Canada that are being ignored by the government. If we implemented these diverse transportation strategies in Ontario, then we could build the equipment and infrastructure to implement them here also.”
Like limiting your stock portfolio, blind commitment to a narrow spectrum of costly, unsustainable industries is a gamble, Langan asserts, that no government or economy should risk. “I am from Windsor originally and I know many people that work in the auto industry,” Langan says. “Cities that base their financial existence on one industry are playing a precarious game. So many towns in the past have grown and died with their industrial base.”
“I think the difference here is that no one thought the auto industry would fail. I just wish government, industry, and the public would start thinking about tomorrow’s opportunities, instead of throwing money at old solutions that are no longer viable.”
High-Speed Rail Canada will hold a public symposium at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 25, at U of T’s Bahen Centre for Information Technology (40 St. George Street), room 1130. Speakers include the Honourable MP Joe Volpe; Greg Gormick, Railway Age Contributing Editor; Honourable MP Dean Del Mastro, Peterborough, Chair of the All Party Rail Caucus; Ashley Langford, Alstom Transportation; and Mario Peloquin from Siemens Canada. The cost to attend is $10 per person, and you can register online at highspeedrail.ca.