Leap if you must, Canada, but do it without bullet trains

Ryan Katz-Rosene

The Leap Manifesto has recently found itself at the centre of controversy, with pipelines in particular acting as a wedge between various factions and regional representatives of the NDP.

The Manifesto effectively calls for a moratorium on :infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future." As a supporter of the social and ecological principles that undergird Leap, I can get behind this statement.

Yet my support for this notion is also the very reason why I think the Leap should reframe what it has to say about a different type of transport infrastructure: high-speed trains.

I admit this may be a technical quibble arising from my having spent years critically evaluating Canadian high-speed rail initiatives for my doctoral thesis, but hey, the Leap aims to engage us in discussion and debate, so here goes.

The offending line in the document is this one: "High-speed rail powered by just renewables and affordable public transit can unite every community in this country -- in place of more cars, pipelines and exploding trains that endanger and divide us."

There are quite a few sentiments in there, including the reference to the apparently controversial pipeline issue which has been discussed ad nauseam, so let's just focus on the first half of this statement.

The vision painted is of a modern society where carbon-neutral high-speed trains link all the metropolises of Canada. Clearly that can't be what is actually intended by those who crafted Leap, as building this type of infrastructure would be an environmental catastrophe in a country this vast, where the nation's biggest cities and provincial capitals are literally thousands of kilometers apart from one another.

As I've noted previously for rabble.ca the ecological benefits of high-speed rail are marginal at best and many scholars are quite skeptical about the potential for bullet trains to actually reduce the volume of air traffic, even in densely populated European corridors. One problem is that the neoliberal context for high-speed rail development makes it such that this type of infrastructure only appeals to governments when the business case demonstrates an increase in overall transport demand (in other words, when it "generates traffic").

Bullet trains also contradict the social principles of Leap. High-speed rail often exacerbates unequal access to intercity transport, since the fares required to recover the costs of building newfangled infrastructure are likely to be steep. As VIA Rail's new CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano recently claimed, high-speed rail is "not a middle-class product" and it "wouldn't do anything in terms of improving transportation for the vast majority."

That gets me to the most important point of this post: It turns out that VIA Rail, one of the nation's few remaining transport-related Crown Corporations, has just announced a plan that should be celebrated by Leap (albeit cautiously). It is trying to convince the federal government to invest $4 billion for a dedicated electric corridor featuring frequent service of electric-hybrid trains between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and the towns inbetween. The project would be in operation within three years (as opposed to the much longer and much more expensive build phase of genuine high-speed rail projects).

If the Leap really is serious about building a green economy, it is this type of rail plan which should be favoured over TGV-style high-speed trains. It makes use of an existing publicly owned infrastructure, rather than requiring the construction of an entirely new -- most likely private -- infrastructure which would then compete with VIA and likely drive it into the dustbin of history.

Further, it would be cheaper and come into service much sooner, allowing for quicker reductions in greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the Wynne government should emulate VIA's plan and scrap its current designs for a bullet train and do the same type of thing with electrified GO service through to Windsor.

The Alberta NDP could explore a similar refurbishment of existing tracks between Calgary and Edmonton. The caveats are that Leap should only support these types of projects if they are both wholly public (to ensure that the people are the true beneficiaries, and that the fare structure doesn't gouge riders’ wallets); and if they are paired with broader regulations and policies (such as carbon pricing) which aim to shift intercity traffic away from fuel-based cars and airplanes (rather than merely contribute the the overall volume of travel).

It is indeed high time for a Leap, but when it comes to transportation proposals the document needs to advocate infrastructure which better reflects its social and ecological mandate.

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.