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High-speed-rail rhetoric heating up

(The following article by Nicolas Van Praet appeared in the Montreal Gazette.)

MONTREAL -- The chairman of Via Rail Canada says he is convinced the federal government will pump millions into a high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont.

Jean Pelletier, former chief of staff for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, told a luncheon audience at the Canadian Club of Montreal yesterday that he's confident Ottawa will commit funding for Via's estimated $3-billion project.

Pelletier did not offer a time frame, content to repeat Federal Transport Minister David Collenette's recent assertion that a fast train could be in place within six years.

Under Via's proposal, the train could use a mix of existing and new rail lines, dramatically decreasing costs compared with a French-style TGV train, which has a full dedicated track.

"This is a reasonable and responsible project," Pelletier said, rolling out statistics claiming the plan will get 2,500 cars off the road every day and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

But various sources told The Gazette that the Chrétien government wants to push back the project, fearful of a major backlash by the airline industry and Air Canada in particular.

The sources said the government is sensitive that at a time when Canada's airlines are struggling to shore up their finances amid high fuel costs, finicky passengers and the threat of war, it would not be prudent politics to provide passenger rail with an unprecedented handout. Air Canada lost $364 million in the last quarter.

Associations representing Canada's airlines and bus companies have vigorously opposed the idea of a high-speed rail project along the Quebec-Windsor corridor, claiming the project amounts to Ottawa subsidizing Via to compete with private business. More than 80 per cent of Via's ridership is concentrated along the corridor.

Pelletier said trains could replace planes in certain Canadian markets, especially on ultra-short routes where airlines like Air Canada and WestJet have been forced to cut back service because they've lost passengers.

"You see also the problems that airlines are having on shorter distances," he told a news briefing. "Trains can be a solution."

Pelletier said he would not engage in a mud-slinging match with other transportation companies over high-speed rail.

"Each mode of transport has a role to play," he said.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the airport and road systems. That's fine, we needed it and we did it. Now it's maybe rail's turn."

Via Rail carried close to 4 million passengers and posted a record $270 million in revenue in 2002, according to preliminary results made public yesterday.

Taxpayers are still paying for the railway, however. Last year, the government spent close to 16 cents to transport each Via passenger one mile, according to a Via official. The corporation received $154 million in operation subsidies in 2002.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

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