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New York to Montreal in nothing flat

(The following story by Janet Whitman appeared on the Financial Post website on July 18, 2010.)

NEW YORK — John Parisella, Quebec’s highest-ranking representative in the United States, caught the 8:15 a.m. train Friday from New York City’s Penn Station bound for Montreal.

At 11-plus hours, including as much as a two-hour logjam at the border, the journey is hardly a practical one for the business traveller.

But for Mr. Parisella, the trip was field research.

He’s made pushing for a high-speed rail link between the Big Apple and Montreal one of his top priorities since assuming the post of Quebec’s Delegate General in New York in November.

The bullet train idea has been around since the early 1970s, when then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau proposed a line modelled on France’s high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) to replace the sluggish and unreliable Adirondack service operated by Amtrak that still connects the two cities nearly four decades later.

Now, however, for the first time, a high-speed service stands a real chance of happening.

The game changer was U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge in January of US$8-billion in federal stimulus money to kickstart a build-out of speedy passenger rail lines in at least 10 regions around the United States, including US$485-million for the Northeast in a plan that could eventually connect to Montreal. Billions more in funding is expected.

“This is the first time that an American administration has decided that this is the agenda,” Mr. Parisella said

Mr. Parisella was talking to the Financial Post on his mobile phone as the train snaked northward.

“This is an important development because the two other times that kind of thing occurred were the building of its interstate highway and travelling to space, both incredible achievements. The United States doesn’t do anything half measure.”

Linking major Canadian cities into that high-speed system would have a huge impact on both countries by fueling tourism and creating a more mobile workforce, as well as offering new opportunities for manufacturing and the movement of goods and services, advocates say. It also would help air quality by providing a competitive alternative to planes and automobiles.

“Where things move is where prosperity occurs,” said Garry Douglas, president of the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Congress, which has been working closely with Quebec for more than a decade to enhance all modes of transportation along the Quebec-New York corridor.

“In the 21st century, North America is quickly evolving into a series of north-south corridors.… That’s the big picture of why higher speed rail is important. It furthers human movement in a faster world, and will define and spur new corridors of economic prosperity, moving not only passengers, but integrating business, intellectual capital, culture and so much more.”

The Quebec-New York corridor is particularly exciting because of the two great cities at its end — Montreal and New York — Mr. Douglas said. Plattsburg lies en route near the Canada-U.S. border.

While Mr. Obama is fully onboard, Canada’s commitment to high-speed rail is less clear.

The country — which like the United States, has been a caboose in the world of train travel compared with countries such as France, Japan and China — is still in the research phase.

The governments of Canada, Ontario and Quebec have made the Quebec City-Windsor corridor a priority by dusting off and updating feasibility studies from the early 1990s.

“The consultants are still working on critical components of the report such as technology, routing, passenger and revenue forecasts, costs, financial analyses and environmental impacts,” said Mélanie Quesnel, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada in Ottawa.

The final report will be completed later this year, she said.

When asked about the prospect of a high-speed train between Montreal and New York City, Ms. Quesnel said that the Canadian government is “closely monitoring” proposals for faster passenger rail services in the United States.

With momentum building south of the border, enthusiasm is likely to grow in Canada, pushing the federal government to make a commitment of its own, industry observers said.

High-speed rail is considered all but inevitable now in parts of the United States. But the big question is how fast is fast?

Japan, which has had high-speed service for about 45 years, has 288-kilometre-an-hour bullet trains, while France’s TGVs go 208 km/h and China’s modern locomotives can hit 344 km/h.

The only “high-speed” rail line in the United States is Amtrak’s Acela Express service, which runs from Boston through New York City to Washington, D.C.

While the trains can hit speeds of 240 km/h along some parts of the route, they mainly dawdle along at an average of less than 112 kn/h.

Even a revamped line between Montreal and New York City might not achieve speeds like 190 km/h over the entire run, especially as the route snakes through the Adirondack Mountains north of Albany, N.Y.

“But it doesn’t need to,” said Mr. Douglas of the Plattsburg-North Country Chamber of Commerce.

“If we can continue working towards high-speed rail from New York City north to the Adirondacks, enhance service from the Plattsburgh area to Montreal and make enhancements through the Adirondack Park for greater reliability, we can achieve a service that will be very attractive for business as an alternative to driving. That’s the essential aim.”

Simply pressing the Canadian and U.S. governments to implement a commonsense approach to clearing Amtrak passengers at the border without current long stoppages could easily shave an hour or more off the Montreal-New York trip, he said.

Some high-speed rail advocates, however, envision train travel in North America getting on a much speedier track.

Instead of merely making the Montreal-New York route competitive with an eight-hour car ride, Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association in Washington, D.C., said there’s no reason the trip can’t be modelled on the Paris-London run, which clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes.

“It gets you right smack downtown and you don’t have to get a taxi from the airport,” said Mr. Kunz. “There are people who now work in one city and live in the other. You could see the exact same thing happening with Montreal and New York.”

Tunnelling and blasting through parts of the Adirondacks — at a likely cost of tens of billions of dollars — shouldn’t be an obstacle, added Mr. Kunz, whose advocacy group formed about a year ago. “Spain is tunnelling through all of its mountains. Japan is doing it and they’re dealing with earthquakes too. We don’t need studies. The whole rest of the world has already been doing it and has it all figured out and perfected. It’s not rocket science.”

Although the vast majority of the Montreal-New York route is on the U.S. side of the border, Mr. Kunz estimated that Canada might have to foot about one-third of the bill to modernize the track through the Adirondacks to the border because the country would stand to gain so much.

Florida and California, two states miles ahead of the rest of North America with viable plans for building bullet train lines, were awarded the biggest grants from President Obama’s original US$8-billion pledge.

The build out in other parts of the country, including the northeast, isn’t nearly as ambitious yet.

That means a high-speed connection between Vancouver and Seattle could end up a faster reality than a Montreal-New York train.

To help get things moving, Quebec named former Canadian diplomat Raymond Chretien to co-head a New York-Quebec taskforce to hype high-speed rail.

At the same time, engineering, transport and other firms from the United States and around the globe are lining up and bulking up to get a piece of the action, with the expectation that the US$8-billion is only a small fraction of what the country will end up spending on its rail systems as they’re updated over the next two or three decades.

Lobbying by those companies and the likelihood another surge in oil and gas prices will likely push U.S. lawmakers and citizens to get behind a true high-speed rail system, where speeds average 240 km/h, Mr. Kunz said. His group, which will tout its goals at its high-speed rail conference in New York City this fall, has come up with a massive overhaul proposal that would cost around US$600-billion to complete.

“This is probably the last great transportation system we’re going to build in America,” he said. “With the coming oil crisis, we’re going to be energy constrained. This is the one last big chance to get a rail system to carry us into the 21st century. An Acela project is not good enough and we should not settle for that.”

Mr. Parisella, who’s blogging about his train trip, said it’s impossible to predict at this stage how fast a route the Montreal-New York line might end up getting or when.

Even a train trip rivaling a car ride would be welcome given that the hour-long flight to Montreal from New York often ends up taking seven hours when travel time to and from the airports, getting through security and delays are added, he said.

Mr. Parisella and his girlfriend, Québécois journalist Esther Begin, who made the trip with him, plan to return to New York via plane to save time. But he’s optimistic that sometime over the next several years taking the train will be a viable option.

“When President Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon in 10 years,’ people laughed and said, ‘We’ll see,’ ” said Mr. Parisella, a former chief of staff to late Quebec premier Robert Bourassa. “The bottom line is he wasn’t around to see it, but they were on the moon in 1969.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

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