Bombardier unveils JetTrain in Canada
(The Calgary Herald posted the following story by Grant Robertson on its website on February 5.)
CALGARY, Alberta -- It's silver, sleek and twice as fast as a cheetah. With a cruising speed of 240 kilometres an hour, it's like driving a Ferrari flat out down the highway and not having to worry about traffic.
But, as Bombardier rolls out its new vision of high-speed rail in Canada this month -- including a planned stop in Calgary -- the company faces a tough task selling its new JetTrain locomotive.
Despite the allure of lightning-quick trains zipping from one city to the next, attempts to develop high-speed rail over the past 20 years have been plagued by constant stops and starts.
Price has been the biggest issue, with the JetTrain expected to require $3 billion to upgrade tracks if the technology is introduced between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
Federal Transport Minister David Collenette won't say if the latest JetTrain idea will get an injection of cash in the budget later this month.
But, on Tuesday, he noted there are "a lot of train fans in cabinet."
Alberta has studied the idea three times in the past two decades as a way to reduce highway traffic. Each report reached the same conclusion: Big benefits, bigger price tag.
The most recent study, completed in 1995 by Alberta Economic Development, said the viability of high-speed rail in the province was "questionable for some time to come."
But Montreal-based Bombardier, one of the world's biggest train manufacturers, isn't deterred by those arguments. Chief executive Paul Tellier, the former head of Canadian National Railway Co., believes times have changed.
Previous speed trains ran on electrified tracks and were expensive. A proposal for the Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto corridor a decade ago was estimated to require $11 billion in track construction.
Bombardier's new locomotive uses a jet engine and wouldn't need its own special tracks. But it will require Canada's freight rails to undergo major upgrades.
"Higher-speed services require some modification to track alignment, such as curve reduction," said Len Cocolicchio, spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway Co. in Calgary.
Hills could also be a problem for speed trains and new signals would have to be installed along with overpasses.
Without the billion-dollar upgrades, travellers shouldn't expect to see the JetTrain strut its stuff in Canada anytime soon.
The locomotive made its first Canadian public appearance this week on a test track in rural Quebec, but was kept at low speeds.
When the JetTrain comes to Calgary, it's doubtful the locomotive will be moving at all.
"We're still working on that . . . I don't think it will be in movement," said Carol Sharpe, spokeswoman for Bombardier.
"It's not going to be a demonstration so much as it's going to be there and we'll explain all the technical ramifications of what it does and how it works."
Federal Finance Minister John Manley has praised the concept of high-speed rail as a way to meet environmental goals set out under the Kyoto protocol.
However, the airline and bus industries are rallying against the idea, saying the government would be hurting their sectors by subsidizing the JetTrain.
"There should be no doubt, high-speed rail is an airplane that flies on the ground," said Warren Everson, vice-president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents the country's carriers.
"The government would be committing billions of dollars of public money for the sole purpose of replacing industries that are already serving the public."
In 1995, base capital costs in Alberta were estimated at about $1 billion to develop a Calgary-Edmonton high-speed rail, with the government having to pick up 80 per cent of the tab.
In addition to the cost concerns, the Alberta committee also said existing modes of transportation -- from airlines to cars and buses -- were not being completely tapped.
"The failure to achieve the overall corridor traffic levels . . . makes the viability of such a link questionable for some time to come," the report said.
Eight years later, the province is again considering the idea and has commissioned the University of Calgary's Van Horne Institute to do a pre-feasibility study on the matter.
Peter Wallis, president of the institute, said the study will look at all options for rail transit between Calgary and Edmonton, not just the JetTrain notion.
"There are other alternatives, which we'll be exploring, including the utilization of existing trains," Wallis said.
Calgary-based CPR, which believes the rail sector is underused, has said it would be willing to consider getting back into the passenger business.
But that proposal, raised by CPR chief executive Rob Ritchie last year, would rely on a heavy injection of government dollars as well.
"We have been encouraging governments for some time now to consider rail as a virtuous option for addressing transportation issues," Cocolicchio said.
A rebirth of passenger rail in the Alberta corridor would have an impact on airline service, Everson said.
WestJet Airlines Ltd. has cut several flights in the province because of dwindling passenger numbers.
Everson said high-speed rail would only make the situation worse, assuming the ticket price was less than the cost of flying.
While some estimates have pegged the cost of a high-speed rail ticket between Calgary and Edmonton at a few hundred dollars, Everson says there's no way of predicting the fare.
"Since there's no business plan based on profit or losses, who knows what it will be," he said, "but if they came into the market with a high-speed rail ticket between Calgary and Edmonton for $60, then no one's going to fly.
"Then you'll see the airlines pull out of certain routes. That's how it works."
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- Has a cruising speed of 240 km/h.
- Capable of travelling from Edmonton to Calgary in just over an hour.
- Powered by a jet engine, rather than electrified rail lines used by most European high-speed trains.
- 20 per cent lighter than a conventional diesel unit with twice the acceleration.
- 30 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional diesel locomotive.
- Would require extensive government investment, estimated at more than $3 billion, to build new tracks.
Wednesday, February 5, 2003
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