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Bombardier revs up campaign for high-speed train travel

(The Globe and Mail posted the following story by Bertrand Marotte on its website on February 4.)

LA POCATIÈRE, Quebec -- Bombardier Inc. is stepping up its campaign for high-speed train travel in Canada with a bet that its sleek new jet-powered technology can win over enough converts -- not least the federal government -- to make the concept a reality at last.

The 240-kilometre-an-hour JetTrain made its first Canadian public run yesterday at Bombardier Transportation's test track among farmers' fields at its La Pocatière manufacturing facility about 135 kilometres east of Quebec City.

The media unveiling, complete with a short demonstration -- albeit at low speeds -- was a prelude to a series of public shows in Central Canada and Alberta pitching the train as a Kyoto Protocol-friendly, convenient alternative to congested airports and highways.

Montreal-based Bombardier, its aerospace division still struggling under the uncertainty that has beset the global airline industry since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, could use some good news from its rail transport division.

Bombardier has unsuccessfully lobbied for a more expensive, electrified version of its high-speed train in the past, but believes this time the political and economic currents are such that enough people with clout can be swung aboard -- notably federal Transport Minister David Collenette.

JetTrain's high-profile promotion takes place just as Finance Minister John Manley puts the final touches on his budget, to be tabled later this month.

Federal sources say that if high-speed rail gets any funding in the budget, it will likely be because Ottawa wants to shift more traffic to train routes as part of its Kyoto strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Collenette has been encouraging in his public statements about high-speed rail. "I don't know whether the government can afford it but I think it's worth doing . . . and if there's money for that in the budget, it's great," he said yesterday in Ottawa. "If that is deemed to be something that is worthy of support this year or next year, then I welcome it."

But it's unlikely that Ottawa will spring for the $3-billion or so Bombardier and other proponents would like to see the government invest in a showpiece Montreal-to-Toronto project.

And a recently formed coalition of bus, airline and airport interests is vociferously opposed to huge sums of public money going to rail transport.

The proposed train could link Montreal and Toronto for about $3.3-billion, compared with about $16-billion for an electric train running on specially outfitted, dedicated track, according to Bombardier presentation notes being used in its current marketing campaign.

The JetTrain would shave hours off intercity trips, making it attractive to business travellers. Bombardier is playing up its coaches' roominess and comfort, making them easier to conduct business on than a cramped airplane, where cellphone use is restricted as well.

If anyone can sell the idea, it's recently installed Bombardier president and chief executive officer Paul Tellier. He is a former top civil servant and ex-boss of Canadian National Railway Co. who is on friendly terms with Mr. Collenette.

In a recent interview, Mr. Tellier was careful to play down what's at stake.

"I want to be very cautious here. People love trains, but very often -- in this country -- drive cars. So, therefore, we've got to be very careful. We have very much the right product but it depends on what kind of public investment, what kind of public-private partnership -- the so-called three Ps -- that the various stakeholders are ready to put together. We are adopting a cautious approach to this," he said.

High-speed rail advocates are hoping that the coming budget will pave the way to faster Via Rail Canada Inc. service in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

Cabinet has been examining proposals for a fast-train rail system on the corridor and is investigating whether Via Rail could borrow money on the open markets for such a project.

Sources say Ottawa's budget makers have been asked to deliver initial funding for the project that amounts to a portion of the $3.3-billion.

Last year, Via sent Ottawa proposals for upgrading Canada's central railway corridor to carry faster trains, and federal sources say the Crown corporation's proposals would require between $2-billion and $3-billion in investment.

Meanwhile, Bombardier's marketing campaign plays up the advantages of train travel between major urban centres up to 650 kilometres apart, highlighting the rising costs and urban congestion caused by air and car travel and the decreasing availability of land for highways and airports.

Also cited are soaring costs -- not to mention waiting time -- for airport security.

"We see some beating of the drums. It causes us great consternation," said Warren Everson, vice-president of policy at the Air Transport Association of Canada, which is a member of the recently formed coalition concerned about Crown corporation Via Rail's ambitious growth plans, including lobbying for high-speed rail.

"We want an explanation of the business plan" for high-speed rail, whose costs are certain to spiral out of control, Mr. Everson said.

The Fair Transport Policies coalition fears that the mere announcement of a pro-fast-train policy for Via will hurt airport authorities by shaking the confidence of debtholders, he said.

The full impact of high-speed rail on the mix of air-bus-car-train transport in the country needs to be carefully examined before any rash decisions are made, he said, comparing the JetTrain -- powered by the same 5,000-horsepower gas-turbine motor that runs Bombardier's Dash 8 turboprop airplanes -- to "a plane on the ground blasting through smaller communities without stopping."

Paul Benoît, president of the Ottawa Airport Authority, another coalition member, argues that the airports are being unfairly taxed while Via and the new train are asking for a free ride from government.

Besides Montreal-Toronto, other city-to-city links identified by Bombardier include Calgary-Edmonton, Chicago-St. Louis, Los Angeles-San Francisco and Orlando-Miami, where bids are being accepted this month by the Florida government.

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

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