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Opinion: Why not put high-speed rail on fast track in Canada, the land of Bombardier?

(The following column by Roy MacGregor appeared on the Globe and Mail website on May 17, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — “Ahhhhh … good morning, ladies and gentlemen – we are now cruising at 65 feet above sea level.”

The … uh…captain? … is on the intercom, using that deep drawn-out pilot bedside manner that is supposed to calm you even if flames are shooting out of the engines.

“This is what 150 miles an hour feels like … 220 feet per second… “Now…

“NOW…

“NOW!”

Trees, swamp, the Atlantic shoreline blur by, and yet the seat barely rocks, gently rocks, rocks rhythmically until … Zzzzzzzzzzzz…

Welcome aboard Amtrak’s Acela Express, the high-speed rail line that runs along the Eastern Seaboard Boston-Providence-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington and, yes, it is a dream.

Too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties and shocking upsets are not the only thing going on in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Another change is taking place in the psychology of those who some say have very little brain to work with: sports writers.

They travel as much as anyone, and whereas the rule of thumb was once you may as well drive any distance that is under three hours, the cut off is now considered five hours by most, even as much as seven hours by many.

Fear of Flying shifted into Fear of Airports some time during this decade – you might date it from Sept. 11, 2001 – and has reached such a point now that any conceivable alternative is quickly seized upon.

There’s nothing wrong with the actual flights – planes are faster, safer than ever – but everything wrong with security lineups, baggage checks, baggage charges, terminal changes and, worst of all, connecting flights.

“If I get up in the middle of the night to take a whiz,” says one disgruntled Pittsburgh hockey writer, “I have to go through Philadelphia.”

With few direct flights into such places as Pittsburgh and Ottawa, and with the growing power of hub airports, employers out to pinch pennies will get you a wonderful reduced fare so long as you are willing to fly Ottawa-Newark-Philadelphia-Rio-Johannesburg-Santiago-Dallas-Detroit-Pittsburgh and plug those seats that otherwise might go empty.

That, admittedly, is a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.

Taking the train from Boston seemed a reasonable alternative. Much cheaper, of course, and by the time line-time, wait-time, taxi-time, ground-crew-time and baggage-time were added in, likely just as fast.

Amtrak has taken a lot of criticism over the years, and the Acela has certainly had its rocky moments in the 10 years or so since high-speed was launched in North America. But it now operates at a profit, carries something like 3 million passengers a year and, apparently, has chomped rather than merely bitten into the air travel market for the region. The train this weekend was packed solid.

There is even a “quiet car,” where no cell phones are allowed to ring, no computer games run, no music explodes out of headphones and talking is discouraged.

“Ahhhhh …,” the captain-pilot-engineer growls into the intercom, “the Quiet Police tell me there’s too much chatter coming from the quiet car. Don’t make me come back there now. I will turn this train around…”

Personally, I wish he would turn it around and send it straight north to Canada, where high-speed rail makes so much sense politicians don’t seem to know what to make of it.

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced $8-billion (U.S.) in grants toward producing a national high-speed intercity rail service. In Canada, where studies have endlessly and consistently promoted high-speed connections through the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, including a “spur” line up to Ottawa, and between Calgary and Edmonton, there is never anything but lip service to future possibilities. The Canadian government has committed nearly $1-billion (Canadian) to VIA Rail upgrades and infrastructure, but still no firm commitment to go the way of the rest of the world. Japan has had high-speed service for nearly 50 years. Trains move through France at 320-km-an-hour and high-speed rail connections throughout Europe are expected to all but eliminate air service routes of less than 800 kilometres.

How ironic that one of the world leaders in high-speed train travel is a Canadian company, Bombardier. In fact, this very train headed for Philadelphia was assembled at a Bombardier plant in the U.S.

Canada has too much distance and too few people to imagine a similar situation here, but enough people in certain areas to make sense of strategic service. High Speed Rail Canada (www.highspeedrail.ca) thinks there are good arguments to be made, as well, for high-speed routes between Montreal-Boston, Toronto-New York and Vancouver-Seattle.

They don’t need to convince me or, it seems, any of the hundreds of other passengers on Acela this day. Another bonus is that, unlike my last trip on one of the main U.S. air carriers, my luggage isn’t running two days behind.

“Wow!” says our captain-pilot-engineer, “Look at the whale!”

But we are moving too fast to catch sight – if, in fact, he wasn’t joking.

“Thank you for giving up the business,” he growls as the train pulls into the Philadelphia station.

“And thank you for letting us take you for a ride.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

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