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Rail plan on track

(The following article by Kate Dubinski was posted on the London Free Press website on July 7.)

LONDON, Ont. -- London-area politicians yesterday were cautiously praising a cabinet minister's comments regarding a high-speed rail system between Quebec City and Windsor. Work may begin as early as this fall to develop the high-speed rail link, Transport Minister David Collenette said in an interview with CP.

The project has been in the works for more than a decade. It would take years to complete and ultimately cost at least $3 billion. It still needs cabinet approval, but could begin moving by September, Collenette said.

That would fit a projected timetable he set in September 2002, when Collenette said he hoped to see the rail link begin moving in one year's time.

He is standing by his projection.

London Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco said last night she would have to look at the details before throwing her unconditional support behind the project.

"(Collenette) has talked about this for a long time," she said.

"It could be a positive project, but so many times cities get pulled into it, and there's obviously no municipal funds for anything like that."

The city has made several appeals to Ottawa for funding for other projects, but has been told there isn't enough money in the federal wallet, DeCicco said.

The rail project has been a long time coming, said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.

"This issue has been around since 1990," he said. "We're the only developing nation to not have high-speed rail. The service we provide now is inadequate."

Preliminary work on the mega-project has been completed, giving the federal cabinet a framework that could be fleshed out later.

Travelling at 200 kilometres an hour, it's projected the high-speed link would make the trip between Montreal and Toronto only three hours long, down from four-and-a-half hours.

The high-speed link also would be a crowning achievement for Prime Minister Jean Chretien as he seeks to stamp his imprimatur on Canada before he leaves office.

Cabinet, which is expected to meet this month, hasn't given the pricey project the green light.

But Collenette hinted he has support for the rail link, which could be a step towards meeting the federal government's Kyoto emission-control commitments by getting at least some drivers off the highway and into railway cars.

That's one of the reasons Bradley has stood behind the project.

"Maybe it wouldn't benefit (Sarnia) directly, but it would be environmentally sound, would reduce congestion on (Highway) 401 and border, and it would just be more efficient.

"This country was founded because of a railroad," Bradley said. "We just have to make Canadians fall in love with rail again."

The project has been the subject of quiet speculation for years.

One proponent of the project has impeccable political links: Via Rail chairperson Jean Pelletier, former chief of staff and longtime friend of the prime minister.

Pelletier told reporters in April he felt "very optimistic" that federal approval for the high-speed rail link was mere months away, adding he believed it had "overwhelming support."

Chretien himself has spoken in favour of high-speed rail.

The project would likely be managed by Via Rail and require new rails to be built to help Via meet its objectives of faster, more frequent and punctual service.

It would likely also rely on JetTrain technology being developed by Bombardier.

The Montreal-based multinational is one of the world's largest producers of rail equipment and has been a strong backer of the Liberal party.

Bombardier has also been going through some financial turbulence and would probably welcome a meaty federal contract.

Monday, July 7, 2003

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