Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

High Speed Rail

with 6 comments

I have just been watching “The Nature of Things” on CBC Newsworld

Rail Renaissance, our lead story, is a 20-minute segment that takes audiences to Europe where they’ll witness the exciting lead up to the launch of the new High Speed One service out of St. Pancras Station, in London. The launch signifies the end of a multi-billion dollar restoration to the rail lines between London and Paris, and to St. Pancras, the station that will be the new home of High Speed One. Along with the physical restoration, many communities along the rail line have been given a lifeline because of the new rail service. This colossal engineering project incorporates 60 kilometres of tunnel, over 150 bridges and 3 major viaducts. It has brought with it signs of newfound prosperity for east London and Southeast England, areas that have largely been neglected. This segment is hosted by the well-known urban affairs critic for The Toronto Star, Christopher Hume. The key question that this segment poses is, if high-speed rail is happening all over Europe, why isn’t it happening here, in Canada?

This was one of those serendipitous things. The furnace went out, so I had to go and find out how to get the pilot light on. But first I had to do my gig on CITR. So supper was late and I missed the news. So I turned to Newsworld to catch up and there was St Pancras in all its restored glory. Now I did mention here the record breaking run on High Speed One, and that has brought a lot of new readers to this blog. The opening of regular service on November 14 also brought me a lot of traffic.


There was discussion about London – and how it could not accommodate cars, so the motorway box was cancelled. More importantly no new car parking has been opened since the sixties. I didn’t know that. In fact when I was at the Department of Transport (as it was called then) the Thatcher government wanted to see “free market” solutions to everything – including parking. As the Economic Adviser, I was supposed to come up with ways to make the free market in parking supply come alive. What I did was point out that no-one would pay to park if they thought they could do it for free on street. So the wheels were set in motion for the toughest ever crack down on illegal parking. It included the introduction of wheel clamps. And it worked to clear out the illegal on street parkers. But, so far as I know, no-one actually wanted to build commercial car parks since there was a lot more money to made from offices and high end residential developments. And it turned out they didn’t. Since then the political wind has shifted, even though some will say that Tony Blair owed more to Thatcher than Nye Bevan. But the outcome has been startling.

Christopher Hume (the reporter on this segment) compared St Pancras to Toronto Union. He compared the Eurostar between London and Paris to VIA Rail between Toronto and Montreal. He thinks we are at least twenty years behind the times. And he blames CN. I think he should actually be looking at Ottawa. VIA Rail has been a patronage issue more than anything else. A way to reward the Liberal faithful with a sinecure. No-one takes long distance, intercity passenger rail travel seriously. It’s all cars and planes here. But it cannot go on like that for much longer.

What had to happen in Britain was that the government had to break out of the dogmatic Thatcherite straight jacket. She hated trains – and during her reign, never rode in one. She refused public funds to the Channel Tunnel and its link to London – so for the previous twenty years, the high speed trains that emerged from the tunnel were forced to slow to the pace of the London suburban services and essentially Victorian infrastructure. Well OK the Southern did bring things a bit more up to date in the thirties – but the speeds remained unremarkable. Blair, to his credit, figured out how to use upgrading the infrastructure to revitalise the run down areas through which the new line runs. Kings Cross and St Pancras will now be the centre of massive redevelopment. So will Stratford. There was much talk of “leverage” – but the reality is that London has become a major European and World centre because of its financial expertise. The real shift in my lifetime has been the change from London as major centre for manufacturing to a service economy – just as Toronto has also been transformed. The biggest change that I saw in my time was the closure of the docks and the transformation of East London that followed. Of course it was a painful process, with some notably violent clashes between the dockers and the police. Perhaps that is one reason why I find it so hard to understand why opening new port facilities here is supposed to be so terrific and forward looking.

What has been different in Britain is that the government came to realise that railways were essential. That modern trains would provide an alternative to driving and flying. That alternative would be a lot lighter on the environment – fewer emissions of both local air pollutants and greenhouse gases. One 400 meter long Eurostar is the equivalent of seven B737s in people moving capacity. Flying to Paris produces ten times the CO2 of taking the train. And those people are a lot more comfortable and happy – and get to their destinations more easily and with less hassle than flying or sitting in a jam on a “freeway”. Britain now spends three times the amount of money (in real terms) on supporting the railways than it did in the age of Thatcher. Fortunately, some of that money goes into new infrastructure, not just the pockets of private sector spivs.

Canada must start spending money – public money – on improving intercity rail travel, starting with city pairs like Edmonton-Calgary, Vancouver-Seattle, and the corridor Chicago-Detroit-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal. It is no good expecting CN CP or Amtrak to change their ways. We need dedicated, high speed, direct rights of way with electrification from day 1. It will cost a fortune – but we are one of the richest countries in the world and we have, for now, the oil and coal revenues to make this happen. We have to invest the profits from fossil fuel into becoming independent of fossil fuels. We start with a carbon tax, and we use the revenues to build carbon free infrastructure. Paying off the national debt in an era of low interest rates must be seen as a lower priority than creating a sustainable future.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 22, 2007 at 8:12 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Hear, hear!

    You are so right. Question is, why can’t the federal or provincial governments in this country see that?

    150 odd years ago, the Japanese sent observers to the west to learn about what was then “modern” technology, and have spend the time between then and now perfecting what they learned. The Japanese now have the best train system in the world, hands down better than any European country. If we’re 20 years behind the Europeans, they’re 20 years behind the Japanese. Yet in our arrogance we pretend that we are the most advanced, despite wasting our precious resources and sitting in traffic for hours on end.

    It’s time we sent observers abroad. What we call “trains” in Vancouver are a joke. The West Coast Express and Skytrain are like children”s toys compared to what most of the countries that are serious about train travel are using. We need to learn how to do things right, and there isn’t much time left to do it.


    November 23, 2007 at 9:04 pm

  2. I was surprised at the amount of North American press coverage given to the opening of St. Pancras Station. We hear relatively little about the continental system or Asian systems. Perhaps this is owing to our closer ties to Britain.

    The similarity of North American and British governmental institutions’ past resistance to passenger rail and the recent British move to high speed rail has caught attention.


    November 24, 2007 at 6:21 pm

  3. An excellent precis!

    One of the more fascinating attributes of passenger rail is its ability to transform cities for the better. This time it was London’s turn to show us backwards North Americans how a public entity can not only achieve a rail service that is far higher in quality than airline services in the same area, but how to rehabilitate wonderful historic buildings with an apropos form of adaptive reuse (the champagne bar is a nice touch too), and to stimulate the entire community around a station to do the same.

    The taxpayer-supported expenditure on St Pancras will likely result in an economic multiplyer benefit double or triple its original value.

    Is it not the role of government to plan ahead and compose policies today to benefit society tomorrow? So where O’ where are they on peak oil? Given the latest Energy Watch Group report, we have perhaps five years left — if we’re lucky — before petroleum fuel prices really take off. And the upwards curve will likely be exponential. So much for the era of affordable suburban car commutes and cheap flights.

    I see four layers of rail that could benefit and enrich society. One is a trans-Canada high-speed network that should be up and running just as inter-city flights become too expensive due to exorbitant fuel charges. Unlike Japan and Europe, we have tremendous distances to travel between cities, so it stands to reason that the technology must push the limits to 400+ k/ph on the flat prairies in dedicated electrified corridors. I would venture to say that the stations in each major city should receive the highest order architectural and urban design treatment. There should also be a plan to eventually achieve a Vancouver-Halifax service, which means building say 200 kilometres of tunnels through the multiple mountain ranges of BC. Very expensive, but it can still be planned, financed and built in stages.

    Second would be commuter rail joining the outlying towns to major cities. Third would be high-efficiency regional rapid transit systems, which are the backbone of any great city. Lastly, I suggest there is even an argument in favour of neighbourhood streetcars that signify the “solidification” of a community with an investment that everyone would use almost everyday.

    With appropriate land-use and urban design policies, I would venture that even the outlying sprawling suburbs will have the tools to convert to more compact forms while protecting the green zone.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t rule out the involvement of the private sector except in the intial and middle stages. Revenue from light cargo and courier services on the high-speed network would help offset some of the operating costs and keep passenger fares at a reasonable level.

    Just some food for thought.


    November 27, 2007 at 12:46 pm

  4. I think a NY to Buffalo to Toronto Highspeed passenger and cargo rail would be a great investment for both the Toronto and NYC areas. Toronto and NYs airports are highly congested and Higspeed rail to the underutilized Buffalo airport would be a winwin siyuation. Canadians have for the past 5 or so years driven down to Buffalo to fly in record numbers. JFk has experienced record delays in passenger air service. Also a direct link between NYC and Toronto North Americas largest economic financial powerhouses via Buffalo would benefit both nations


    December 29, 2007 at 9:20 pm

  5. When I first arrived in Canada (October 1988) I landed at Hamilton Airport – which was a lot cheaper for the charter airline to operate into than Pearson. There was a free bus laid on to take passengers to Union Station – and everyone was very irritated that they had to wait for us to clear Immigration. It certainly was a nice quiet airport.

    Isn’t the reason people drive to Buffalo that they can get cheaper flights from there on US no frill carriers? I know if is often cheaper to fly to US cities from Bellingham – or even Seattle – than YVR.

    Stephen Rees

    December 30, 2007 at 9:13 am

  6. […] While Business Week compares that the uphill struggle that Obama is having trying to get his high speed rail legislation through Congress, I do not agree that this poses much of a threat to high speed rail – though it does make for snappy copy. And the advantages of high speed rail have been discussed on this blog often enough . […]

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