Thursday, March 5, 2009

High-speed wreck

The Florida-Martin report, Ontario In the Creative Age, also promotes high-speed rail that would connect population centers in Ontario. According to the Toronto Star, the high-speed rail network would cost as high as $27 billion. As long as money doesn't grow on trees, it is unlikely that such funds be committed to infrastructure that is very likely to fail in getting commuters off the roads in Ontario.

I am not a big fan of high-speed rail in Canada. I believe there is very little current demand (and low potential for diversion from private automobile in future) for rail in the intercity travel market in Canada. I have reasons to be conservative about rail's potential in Canada. Consider that a trip does not begin or ends at the rail station. The time saved on high-speed rail may be spent on getting to and from rail stations because most intercity commuters now live in the suburbs and not within a walking distance of downtown train stations. Plus, the cost per trip of high-speed rail will be prohibitive when compared with the marginal cost of making the same trip by car. This is truer for families in the intercity travel market in Ontario who would always find commuting by car much cheaper than paying prohibitive costs of high-speed rail travel.

The fundamental question to ask is what high-speed rail would achieve in Canada. Professor Richard Florida appeared on CBC's program The Hour last night where he suggested that high-speed rail between Montréal and Toronto would make it possible to live in Montréal and work in Toronto. Prof. Florida finds a daily four-hour commute amusing and adds that many in the US are already doing it. For some reason I cannot warm up to this idea of a four hour daily commute, regardless of the speed. I believe most Canadians would rather avoid following in the footsteps of the Uber commuters who live in New York and work in Washington DC and make the daily commute by Bombardier's Acela. And if a two-hour commute between Montréal and Toronto is the desired objective, one can always fly, even from downtown Toronto.

Furthermore, the proponents of rail in Canada have kept many necessary details about their demands for infrastructure investments hidden from the Canadian taxpayers. My experience with getting access to data and details about proposals for investments in rail suggests that getting access to real investment details is easier said than done.

I have been trying for years in vain to have access to Via Rail's (uncensored) high-speed rail proposal (Via One) for the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Even after going through the Access to Information Act, Transport Canada released a much censored version of the proposal that even hides the number of trips between Toronto and Montreal. Transport Canada's hands were tied by Via Rail that considers even the number of trips made between Montréal and Toronto by any mode as proprietary information.

While Canadians were being denied access to the Via's proposal that solicited over $3 billion of taxpayers' money under the then transportation Minister David Collinet, the American consultants, who studied the feasibility of the high-speed rail link, have been using the data and the results of the study to teach travel demand modeling in the United States. What I couldn't get from Transport Canada or Via Rail, I got it as attachments to an email from the US-based consultants.

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