Transportation

If You Build It...

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 12, 2009

While Canadian and American planners continue to kvetch over the supposed cultural obstacles to sustainable transportation infrastructure, other countries are getting on with the business of cutting over their systems.

Spain, in particular, has made impressive strides in just a few short years

The Guardian reports that during the same period that Spanish domestic flights dropped 20 percent last year, ridership on its new high-speed rail line between Barcelona and Madrid grew 28 percent.

Travelling by high speed train produces only one-sixth the carbon as flying, costs less, and gets you there on time 99 percent of the time.

In before the predictable claim that Europe is compact and hence different:

In a country where big cities are often more than 500km (300 miles) apart, air travel has ruled supreme for more than 10 years. A year ago aircraft carried 72% of the 4.8 million long-distance passengers who travelled by air or rail. The figure is now down to 60%.

"The numbers will be equal within two years," said Josep Valls, a professor at the ESADE business school in Barcelona.

Two more lines just opened last week: from Barcelona to Malaga and from Barcelona to Seville. Construction is ongoing on lines linking Madrid with Valencia, Alicante, Basque and Galicia. As the Guardian notes, the Spanish government is committed to laying 10,000 km of track between now and 2020.

The goal is to bring 90 percent of Spaniards within 34 km of a station.

Now there's a country with a bold, achievable plan to modernize its transportation infrastructure and reduce carbon emissions even as it stimulates the economy through the current economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Canada is stuck with a scattershot, partisan budget geared far more to politicking than to sustainable development.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Apples to Oranges (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 16:52:05

Spain and Canada, eh? As enviable as the European rail system is there are way too many differences, beyond cultural obstacles between these two countries, to fairly suggest that what can be done in Spain can be emulated in Canada.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 20:46:17

It could be a goal for Southern Ontario though.

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By Where theres a will (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 22:01:44

To "Apples to Oranges", what a load of B.S. You're just making excuses. There's no differences or cultural obstacles why Canada can't have high speed rail, there's just a lack of will from cowardly politicians who don't stand for anything. If you asked Canadians if we should have high speed rail I bet anything most would say YES.

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By Hometownproud (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2009 at 22:02:37

Air travel means plans.
Rail means Hamilton jobs. So rails are made of yes STEEL.
National steel car makes or can make rail cars or platforms. Wheels are made of steel. So put down tracks all over Ontario from Montreal to Windsor, Ottawa to North Bay to Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay.
Sarnia to London to Toronto.
We need it. Forget the airports. Europe uses rail and so can we. it is approx 500 kms from Toronto to montreal and consider it is about 5 hrs on a train. or arrive early to clear security and wait for your bags. The total from start to finish is roughly the same for a 500 kms trip.
just get VIA to drop the price or be more realistic 1/6 the carbon imprint.

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By Apples to Oranges (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 00:15:31

I'd love a high speed rail line linking Toronto and Montreal. I'd love one linking Halifax and Vancouver, too. But the compactness of Spain, can't be discounted because there are 10 million more people than Canada has squeezed into an area half the size of Ontario. The grid pattern of rail lines crisscrossing Spain benefits far more people compared to a single line linking Toronto and Montreal. You're asking for a very expensive transit line which will need taxpayer support way beyond the the cities being served. Vancouverites and Haligonians won't be so willing to help support some central Canadian high speed project. I can't see it happening, not in our generation.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 08:00:00

I don't think anyone is proposing transnational high speed trains, but the Windsor-Quebec corridor has exactly the kind of compactness and density that you're talking about. The only thing stopping us is our mindset.

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By Hometownproud (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 09:46:41

I forgot right here in Ontario (Thunder Bay) we have a rapid transit manufactuer in an area where forestry once thrived. So there is is resources available.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 10:06:22

Short-haul trips like Toronto-Montreal, Toronto-Ottawa, Calgary-Edmonton, Toronto-New York, etc (as opposed to Halifax-Vancouver), are more amenable to high speed rail than air. Rail is easier to take (just show up and hop on) and the stations are easier to access than remote airports. The vast majority of travellers prefer rail to air.

Building a high-speed network will reduce the travel time substantially enough to divert air travellers to rail. Not only would this switch have environmental benefits, but it would also increase travel in general (as it would now be easier to hop over to Montreal for lunch, or a Habs game).

In contrast to what some people have been claiming on here, there is no reason Canada can't replicate what is being done in Europe.

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By Apples to Oranges (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 11:50:07

"In contrast to what some people have been claiming on here, there is no reason Canada can't replicate what is being done in Europe."

But there is. Obviously, it's a lack of money. Good luck getting commitment from the Ont and Que gov'ts so mired in debt. Even though half of Canada's population lives in the Windsor-QC corridor you'll never get the adequate federal support to help finance a system.

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By Where theres a will (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 12:07:48

"But there is. Obviously, it's a lack of money. Good luck getting commitment from the Ont and Que gov'ts so mired in debt."

Bollocks. Spain's GDP per capita is about $20,000 lower than Canada, their real GDP growth has been slower over the past decade and will be sharply negative this year, they've got a big current accounts deficit, and their federal budget deficit is expected to exceed 7% of GDP in 2009.

They're in much worse fiscal shape than we are but they're still building high speed trains as (long term) an investment in future sustainability and economic growth and (short term) an economic stimulus.

Not sure if you noticed but we're shelling out craploads of bucks for a stimulus too, only we're mostly wasting it on things that won't really stimulate the economy and won't position us for future sustainable growth.

That's not because our culture is opposed to these things but because our federal government doesn't care about them and the opposition are a bunch of wilty flowers terrified of an election they can't afford.

Your argument is a self fulfilling prophesy, nothing more.

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By calvinkool (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 17:15:20

Debt, debt, debt. Is that all there is to argue? Why is it so impossible for these people to realize that this stagnate economic situation we are in needs to be stimulated. Innovation will created economic growth throughout all of southern Ontario. This is the 21st century, if we don't take radical steps now to improve our future than we will continue to linger behind the rest of the country. Ontario used to be the economic engine of this country, but now we are a drain. We need to regain control and once again become our countries forerunner in success.

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By Pokey (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 19:16:28

While it's laudable that Canada has been so financially responsible all these years I can't help but wonder that maybe if we were less thrifty, maybe if we had a debt to GDP ratio equivalent to some of the other G7 nations, then maybe we would be better off as a country?

I'm not suggesting we go crazy, but when most of the industrialized nations are much further in debt that us I can't help but wonder if we're costing ourselves a long term advantage by not borrowing money now?

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By Henesee (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2009 at 02:08:48

sure, and when airlines get greener, we'll abandon the rail lines again. The cycle continues..

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:13:13

It may surprise you to learn that airplane manufacturers actually are concerned about fuel efficiency. Burning less fuel saves the carriers money, and allows longer flight paths. There is no reason to make fuel inefficient planes, unlike cars, where people chose poor performing cars for life style choices (or utility purposes on occasion). No one ever considers the exterior of the plane they're in.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted March 15, 2009 at 11:38:33

@ Apples to Oranges

"But there is. Obviously, it's a lack of money. Good luck getting commitment from the Ont and Que gov'ts so mired in debt. Even though half of Canada's population lives in the Windsor-QC corridor you'll never get the adequate federal support to help finance a system."

Money is always a concern for any policy decision. But money, in isolation, is not an argument against any particular policy choice (such as building a high speed rail network). It really comes down to whether the expense can be justified by the potential benefits. There is always money for a project if the political will exists. Your statement actually suggests a lack of political will, rather than the inability to raise sufficient funds, is what is holding back investment in a high speed rail network.

Of course, it's easy to blame politicans. It's also pointless. Believe it or not, politicians care deeply about what the electorate thinks. High speed rail is simply not a huge issue in the minds of most people. Until it is, we will never see the kind of developments happening in Europe.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2009 at 22:46:58

Canada as a country was built on rail. It disappeared for a short time (less than 100 yrs) during a "blip" where people made some very unsustainable decisions. That's all.

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By Diego Méndez (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2009 at 03:20:45

Where there is a will said: "Spain's GDP per capita is about $20,000 lower than Canada, their real GDP growth has been slower over the past decade and will be sharply negative this year, they've got a big current accounts deficit, and their federal budget deficit is expected to exceed 7% of GDP in 2009."

I agree with you. However, there are a couple of factual errors:

1) Spain's GDP per capita (on PPP terms, which is the right way to measure wealth) is just $8,000 lower than Canada's.

2) Spain's real GDP growth over the past decade has been slightly higher than Canada's.

3) Spain's big current-account deficit financed investment, not consumption, unlike the US and UK (investment in Spain, at over 30% GDP, was one of the highest in the developed world; compare that to 21% in Canada, 19% in the US and 17% in the UK).

4) And finally, annual budget deficits don't matter, what matters is long-term federal debt, which is 36% GDP for Spain and twice as much (70%) for Canada.

But I agree Canada (like much of the world) lacks political will, not money.

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