07/07/2014 12:39 EDT | Updated 09/06/2014 05:59 EDT

It's Time Canada Gets a High-Speed Rail

This artist's rendering provided by DesterXpress shows the proposed DesertXpress high-speed train. The Obama administration is on the verge of loaning a Nevada company linked to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as much as $4.9 billion to build a high-speed train from Victorville, Calif., to the gambling palaces of Las Vegas. The project is anchored to the untested idea that car-loving Californians will pull off busy Interstate 15 on the edge of the Mojave Desert after driving about 100 miles from the Los Angeles area, then board a train for a 150 mph ride to the famous Strip. (AP Photo/DesterXpress)

When was the last time you heard Canada's Federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt mention the words "high-speed rail" or its commonly used acronym "HSR," in any public speech or announcement? Think hard, and keep thinking, but don't hold your breath while you think.

While Raitt and her government have spent a great deal of time talking about improved safety standards at VIA Rail, they are also continuing the series of effective budget cuts for the railway company that began in 2008. Where does that leave HSR? Mostly, MIA. In fact, HSR has never really been on this government's agenda at all.

Yet, there is no lack of viable proposals for high-speed rail on the table, proposals that would bring measurable benefits to the Canadian economy. One with potential would see an HSR link between London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Pearson International Airport and Toronto.

For example, there is the now three-year old Ecotrain study which showed that the projects for the Quebec-Windsor Corridor, and the portion between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto in particular, could provide economic benefit if the governments involved agreed to support building the infrastructure.

Since this government has been building all kind of infrastructure across the nation, on the argument that it will bring in broad economic benefit, surely the same argument applies to high-speed rail? Of course, the principal problem with the current government's HSR policy is absence of any policy at all.

Since 1973, there have been 16 separate studies on the feasibility of high-speed rail in Canada. Some have been pessimistic about the economic benefit of the investment.

This, however, does not stop France, China, Japan, Germany, Spain and many other countries from bringing public and private support together for high-speed trains, and so reaping the considerable broader economic and commercial benefit from the technology.

The most immediate benefits like reducing road and airport congestion, improving air quality, limiting reliance on fossil fuels, are obvious, and, admittedly, the studies don't show that they are definitive.

But the studies do not consider the effect of mobilizing masses of people and bringing them to new markets, which is what makes high-speed rail so beneficial in Europe, for example.

An OECD study shows that the construction of a HSR line between two major cities leads to the development of industry and financial services in the two city centres.

While it is difficult to gauge the amount of growth to be expected (the number of factors is too large), that there will be growth is clear. With that growth comes related economic activity at the surrounding service industries: restaurants, shops, clothing stores, etc. all enjoy the effects.

If the investments demanded are considerable, there is significant private interest in sharing it, and this would be a great place to put this federal government's much-vaunted support for Public-Private Partnerships into place. While our international competitors are already at work on high-speed infrastructure, can Canada afford to ignore it? To ask the question is to answer it.

Joseph Soares served as a communications issues advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada (2008-2010), as well as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (2006-2008). This article is the first in a three part series on the state of passenger rail in Canada.


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