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High-speed rail in five years: Collenette

(The Globe and Mail posted the following article by Keith McArthur on its website on February 26.)

OTTAWA -- Transport Minister David Collenette told reporters Tuesday that he hopes a high-speed rail link in Central Canada will become a reality in five or six years.

He cautioned that he has not yet presented the idea to the cabinet but said he's "very hopeful" that they will approve a $3-billion proposal to improve the track and trains along the Quebec City-Windsor, Ont., corridor.

"I'm very encouraged by some of the things my colleagues say to me privately," Mr. Collenette said.

"And should we get the approval to go ahead, there's no question that there are monies within the fiscal framework that can get us started. I think we can get this done within five or six years."

Mr. Collenette made the comments at a news conference in Ottawa where he presented a policy document titled Straight Ahead -- which he called a transportation framework for the next decade.

The policy paper was accompanied by sweeping legislation to enact the changes.

As reported Saturday in The Globe and Mail, the legislation gives the government powers to veto rail mergers and requires larger airlines to provide services to smaller competitors.

It also creates a separate Via Rail Act for the first time.

Mr. Collenette told reporters that because Via Rail has not had a federal statute of its own, it has been financed "at the whim of various governments," including the current Liberal regime.

He said that giving Via Rail Canada Inc. its own act will ensure that any debate on the future of the subsidized Crown corporation will be in Parliament, not at the Department of Finance.

He said the act "says once and for all passenger rail is here and here to stay." However, Canadian Alliance transport critic James Moore said Via Rail is "quickly becoming a sinkhole" for the federal government.

"I think David Collenette over all is wrong on rail. He has too much emphasis on rail. The vast majority of Canadians get around by car. They travel interprovincially by air. And rail, I think, is a pipe dream."

Sources say the government is considering funding high-speed rail using money earmarked in last week's budget to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Montreal-based transportation giant Bombardier Inc. probably would benefit from the proposal. It has been promoting its new high-speed JetTrain, which uses a Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine on a locomotive.

The proposal also would help Canada's two freight railways -- Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Co. -- to improve service. With track improvements, they say they could offer better interline service -- whereby trucks are carried by train -- along the corridor.

Mr. Collenette said Canada must deal with gridlock if its transportation system is to be efficient and economically competitive.

"Congestion in our urban centres and bottlenecks in our trade corridors are eroding our productivity, our quality of life and our ability to compete," he said.

"We have all experienced the helpless frustration that gridlock breeds. Being stuck in choking traffic for hours on end keeps us away from our jobs and our families and threatens our economic lifeblood by holding off the movements of our precious exports."

The legislation includes various provisions for promoting competition in the air and rail industries.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

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