Riding the rails to government?

As part of a broader economic vision, high-speed rail has much to recommend it

Élection fédérale 2009

Early morning sun lights up the train tracks that run under the Bathurst St. bridge in Toronto.
For all the feasibility studies, expressions of openness from politicians and enthusiastic editorials over the past couple of decades, there has seemed something fanciful about the notion of bringing high-speed rail to Canada. Only the federal government has the resources to make such an investment, and the idea – despite some support at the provincial level – has never truly registered in Ottawa.
That may be about to change. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, has previously expressed enthusiasm for high-speed trains. With his party struggling to differentiate itself from the governing Conservatives, there is speculation that promises to build those links – between Calgary and Edmonton, along the Windsor-Montreal corridor, or both – could be part of the Liberals' next platform.
There would be something convenient about a party that has widely been accused of lacking vision seizing on so symbolic and romantic a project – one that harkens back to the foundations on which the country was built. But Mr. Ignatieff, who has yet to coherently explain in practical terms how his economic management would differ from Stephen Harper's, would be unwise to view high-speed rail as a quick fix for the Liberals' inability to generate excitement. While it might deliver them some ridings in Ontario and Quebec (Alberta is a different matter), it would likely be greeted with indifference in some other parts of the country.
As part of a broader economic vision, however, high-speed rail has much to recommend it. In the short-term, it would create jobs. But unlike many other infrastructure projects announced during the recent bonanza of stimulus spending, its long-term benefits would be greater. To be able to travel by train between Toronto and Montreal in little more than two hours would improve productivity, encourage tourism, and reduce emissions by getting people out of their cars. In Alberta, which bizarrely lacks any passenger service at all between its two largest cities, the impact could be even greater.
What remains to be seen, even if the Liberals commit to high-speed rail, is whether they are prepared to scale back infrastructure spending elsewhere. There is a danger that, in order to appease voters outside the pockets that would directly benefit from the new links, they would continue the scattershot spending – much of it on make-work projects – that flowed from last winter's stimulus package. (A recent tally suggested that the Conservatives have made nearly 1,600 funding announcements since their re-election last October.)
If that is the case, the many billions of dollars required for high-speed rail would be unaffordable. But if the Liberals demonstrate a readiness to make difficult decisions in order to advance a priority, they may finally begin showing some of that vision they have seemed to lack.

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