By Ryan McGreal
Published June 02, 2009
The June 2, 2009 issue of The Walrus features a special on high speed rail in Canada - or, rather, high speed rail not in Canada, given that we're the only G8 nation that doesn't have any.
Monte Paulsen has written a chilling indictment of the decades of neglect and political cowardice that have brought us to this point, a point at which the billions of dollars in Canadian stimulus spending are going into roadwork, highways, automobile manufacturers, Alberta oilsands - in fact, just about everything but the high speed rail that countries like Spain are expanding rapidly and ambitiously.
This paragraph catches the crux of the matter, after surveying the 20 or so countries that have or are developing high speed rail networks:
Why are these countries planning and building high-speed rail lines? Because they're a kind of insurance policy for the twenty-first century. High-speed rail ensures that cities remain connected the next time the price of oil rises, and in the event that $150-a-barrel oil returns for good. Because it is so much more fuel efficient, high-speed rail is far, far greener than flying, and in a century of dwindling oil it's also far more economically sustainable - a fact Saudi Arabia seems to grasp, but Canada does not.
How can the home of Bombardier and a country whose population is concentrated in dense urban corridors just perfect for inter-urban rail be so far behind the curve that, as Paul Langan of High Speed Rail Canada puts it, "it's like we can't even see their tail lights anymore"?
Forty years ago, Canada produced a train that could race from Toronto to Montreal in two hours, had we but bothered to invest in building dedicated rail lines. Decades of astonishingly costly highway construction later - the sheer number of highway lanes pour into Toronto staggers the imagination - our rail network is even worse, and in any case dominated by the freight traffic that takes priority over passenger rail.
Of course, this state of affairs feels normal because that's just how it is. Paulsen illustrates just how bizarre and counterproductive an arrangement it is by turning the tables for a moment:
Imagine how efficient automotive travel would be if the federal government owned and operated every passenger vehicle on the Trans-Canada Highway. Then suppose the government handed the Trans-Canada itself to a multinational trucking company, which subsequently decreed that passenger vehicles would have to pull off to the shoulder whenever a truck wished to pass.
Part of the problem after decades of neglect is that, as Paulsen notes, "Canadians have yet to fall back in love with passenger rail. How could they? There's nothing here to love."
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