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New high-speed Canadian trains touted to match U.S. vision

(Canwest News Service circulated the following story by Mike De Souza on May 19, 2009.)

OTTAWA — A multibillion-dollar Canadian high-speed rail project could inject new life into the domestic steel industry and allow the country to keep pace with a "visionary" plan launched last month by U.S. President Barack Obama, railway industry and public transit advocates said on Tuesday.

"Obviously, President Obama has made it a priority and so we're certainly at risk of losing ground to them if we don't take a good hard look ourselves and make some decisions over the next few years," Cliff Mackay, president and chief executive officer of the Railway Association of Canada, said in an interview.

The Obama administration announced a multibillion-dollar plan in April that identified 10 possible regions to build new high-speed rail systems as part of its economic recovery plan. They include potential links to Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Montreal from Seattle and Boston, as well as links to U.S. cities such as Detroit and Buffalo in the Great Lakes region.

Mackay was among the first witnesses to appear at parliamentary hearings that began last week on the future of high-speed rail in Canada.

"Clearly, what we need is vision beyond the next six months and that's what's missing in Canada," said Paul Langan, the founder of the advocacy group High Speed Rail Canada. "This vision has never been seen before in North America . . . These people (in the U.S.) are behind rail."

MPs have described the hearings as a fact-finding mission to sort out the dreams of high-speed rail from the reality of Canada's geographical and political climate. The transport committee at the House of Commons is focusing its study on the feasibility of a faster train service or high-speed rail in the Quebec City-Windsor and Calgary-Edmonton corridors.

"There is certainly great interest within our committee to determine, one, if it's viable, (and) two, if we can do it, and what the stakes and what the costs would be," said Merv Tweed, a Conservative MP from Manitoba who chairs the parliamentary committee.

The most recent study for high-speed rail in Ontario and Quebec from 1995 estimated the cost at about $18 billion over several years, while a 2004 Alberta study estimated a bullet train between Calgary and Edmonton could cost as high as $3.4 billion. Both proposals would speed up travel between cities while reducing traffic on roads and in airports.

Transport Canada officials said that a new study on Ontario and Quebec, sponsored jointly by the federal and provincial governments, should be completed by 2010 and offer an update on all of the impacts, consequences or benefits of various options on the table, including new possibilities available for use in a colder climate.

"There has been enormous evolution in high-speed rail technology in the past 15 years," Helena Borges, the director general of surface transportation policy at the department, told the committee last week. "There are lots more options today than there were back then."

The joint government study would also look at existing models in other countries to examine financing options, partnerships with the private sector and the impact on other modes of transportation, such as air travel.

But Mackay noted there could also be benefits in areas such as steel rail manufacturing, which used to take place in Canada 10 to 15 years ago before it moved offshore because of international competition and the lack of demand in North America.

"The construction of high-speed rail systems in Canada would require approximately $4 billion in track over a 10-year period," said Mackay. "That may be enough to turn the corner."

Mackay and Langan both said they were encouraged by the openness from the government and opposition MPs to explore the issue in detail.

Tweed added that the committee will also hear from groups and companies with a wide range of opinions and expertise on the issue in the coming weeks, such as engineering firm Bombardier and airline industry associations. The parliamentary committee is hoping to report its findings to the House of Commons before the summer begins, he said.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

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