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  • Writer's pictureLee

No-Brainer or White Elephant - What is the Future for HSR in Canada?

In July 2015, something unusual happened: an Olympic Games were awarded. That is not unusual, in fact, it happens every 2 years. What was unusual is that only 2 cities were competing to host the games: Beijing and Almaty, both countries ruled by authoritarian regimes keen to use the games for their political ends.

Where were the other bids? Where were the bids commonly seen from cities in democratic countries keen to boost their profile?

Originally, there were other bids from cities such as Krakow, Stockholm and Oslo, but they all withdrew due to a lack of political and public support that can be traced to one thing: the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The Sochi Olympics ended up being the most expensive Olympic Games ever, costing $52 Billion. This is despite them being a Winter Olympics, an event a fraction the size of their summer counterpart. The exorbitant cost of the games can be attributed to the fact that it was less about putting on a sporting spectacle and more about a dictator using the games as a propaganda showcase as well as an opportunity to raid public coffers in order to reward insiders.

Why on earth am I talking about the Sochi Olympics when this post is about high-speed rail? Because those in positions of power lazily looked at the Sochi Olympics, an extravagant edge case, and thought it would apply to them as well. They looked at Sochi and got sticker shock while ignoring counter-examples such as Calgary, Salt Lake City and Vancouver where Winter Olympics broke even or better. As a result, they missed an opportunity to please their populace and increase the profile of their communities.

We are seeing the same pattern of lazying thinking repeat itself when it comes to assessing high-speed rail in North America. Smart and otherwise reasonable people are looking at the skyrocketing costs of projects such as California High-Speed Rail and HS2 and assume it will be the same story in Canada while ignoring success stories in France, Spain and Italy.

I want to be clear that people are right to be skeptical of megaprojects and anything that government touches. However, dismissing projects like high-speed rail in Eastern Canada out-of-hand would mean missing out on a project that has the potential to reduce emissions, catalyze economic development and improve the welfare of millions of Canadians for decades to come. The enemy here is not healthy skepticism but lazy thinking, thinking that overlooks details, misses nuance and lacks imagination.

Let’s look at some of the details and nuances that explain why California’s system is projected to cost $170 Million per kilometre, more than 10 times the cost that high-speed rail has been built in Western countries such as France and Spain. First, politics has had an enormous influence in causing costs to escalate, from expensive alignment deviations to overbuilding infrastructure. Second, excessive bureaucratic processes meant that clearing environmental hurdles alone cost the project $1.3 Billion. Finally, a lack of in-house expertise meant there was nobody to keep engineering firms honest when these firms mandated excessive and costly design requirements.

Could these problems be repeated here? Yes, but it is also within our power to avoid them.

But surely there are climatic and geographic factors that will make high-speed rail in Canada unavoidably expensive, right? When it comes to climate, high-speed rail has been built and operates successfully in places with ice and snow such as Russia, northern Japan and northern China with marginally higher costs. When it comes to geography, Eastern Canada has some of the most favourable geography anywhere in the world with relatively flat, empty terrain between dense urban centres. The high-speed rail line between Paris and Lyon which traverses similarly gentle geography, only cost around $11 Million per kilometre.

Will high-speed rail in Canada be a boondoggle? Will it cost $100 Billion like California’s project? It could but it doesn’t have to. The factors that could lead to the cost ballooning out of control such as political interference, poor construction management practices and overbuilding are entirely within our control. The factors outside our control, such as geography, actually work in our favour.

So let’s go ahead and build high-speed rail.

But let’s make sure we do it right.

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