Canadian Liberals Hope to Find Electoral Success in Support for High-Speed Rail

» Ruling Conservatives have been reluctant to commit to what would be a huge project to connect Québec, Montréal, Toronto, and Windsor.

Early this year, the Canadian Conservative Party came close to losing its control of the federal government after the Liberal, New Democratic, and Bloc Québécois parties suggested that they would demand that their collective legislative majority be honored. In Canada, the party with a plurality of seats is traditionally rewarded with the Prime Ministership even if multiple parties on the opposing side have more total representation in the Parliament. In the past few months, Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have attempted to soothe the masses by appropriating cash to major projects throughout the country — Toronto received huge grants for several light rail lines and the proposed Québec-Windsor high-speed rail link garnered preliminary support.

Months have passed and there has been no added commitment to the fast train project, so the opposition Liberals, seeing a winning issue, have jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to make a new rail connection a central feature of their campaign in the next federal elections, which will likely be this fall next year. The Conservatives continue to suffer from significant unpopularity in Canada.

Though the issue of a train between the largest cities in Ontario and Québec provinces has been studied dozens of times and despite the fact that the metropolitan areas around Toronto and Montréal, just 550 km apart, house more than 1/4th of the country’s population, Canada has never made a strong commitment to fast rail. A concentrated investment would allow for service between the cities in 2h15, far less than the five hour trip required today on VIA Rail Canada. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, is ideally located between the two. There are cumulatively 60 daily round-trips offered by airlines directly between the cities. This is a corridor that demands high-speed rail.

Adding such a program to the Liberal electoral agenda may inspire growth in the party’s ranks in Ontario and Québec, though inhabitants of Alberta may be inspired only if the Party pushes a less effective Edmonton-Calgary link. It’s hard to see how people in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the country’s other provinces will be inspired by any talk of high-speed rail, since no one is discussing the possibility of a cross-Canada connection.

The New Democratic Party, positioned to the left of the Liberals, has been advocating for fast trains for years, as has the Bloc Québécois, though the latter group, focused on Québec sovereignty, seems more interested in a Montréal-New York link than a line to Toronto. As a result, new voters seem likely to be attracted to the Liberal Party from the right, rather than the left, since it is from that side of the political spectrum that the Liberals have lost most of their support since the heady days of the early 1990s.

It seems hard to argue with the Liberal plan to support high-speed rail, though there’s no reason to think that Conservatives won’t hijack the idea if popular support for the project gains steam. Though their political future is very much in doubt, English Labourites have come down strongly on the side of a new north-south high-speed link after months of opposing Tory efforts to promote the project. Nonetheless, when the next government comes to power in Canada in early 2011, it seems likely that we will see a politician on the left in the Prime Minister’s seat; the Liberal Party’s new-found support for high-speed rail is a good first step for what will have to be a major undertaking. This is especially true because political support now must be strong enough to withstand a public backlash against the project’s likely C$50 billion cost later.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Denis Agar

    Hey Yonah, just a few corrections – it looks like we’ll be having an election in a month or two; according to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff; as announced this afternoon.

    http://www.thestar.com/article/689296

    Also, the not insignificant Green Party based a large part of their election platform on building rail infrastructure last election. The leader did a coast-to-coast tour by train to prove how dedicated she was to the idea.

  • Allan

    FYI – The Conservative government may fall as soon as October 2009. The Liberals are pursuing a confidence vote in early October to trigger an election as early as November. There may be hope for HSR sooner rather than later.

  • I think the point is that there may be hope of a government that’s not batshit insane. Harper believes that global warming is a myth.

  • Looks like it was a good day to post on this subject!

  • Unpopular compared to whom? 33% support isn’t exactly a majority, but it’s good enough given the largest opposition party at 32% and an opportune distribution of voters. One hopes Ignatieff has ten points worth of tricks under his sleeve if he is to unseat Harper.

  • Nathanael

    (1) Windsor (opposite Detroit)-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City HSR is a no-brainer for a good idea.
    (2) Edmonton-Calgary is a lot better than you’d expect it to be. Look at Canada’s demographics and you’ll see why: Calgary’s a million people and Edmonton’s a million people, and that’s 2/3 of the province’s population.
    (3) British Columbia should focus on getting a high-speed link to Seattle. The Washington State government is all for it, but the Canadians have been quite uninterested.
    (4) Nobody to speak of lives in the Territories. Not suitable for rail except incidentally. Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the Maritime Provinces are thinly populated and not really suitable. Perhaps they could get better conventional-speed rail, which the Maritime Provinces mostly lost and *could* use?

  • Adam

    I agree with Nathanael’s point 3 especially. You can sell HSR in BC by proposing to pony up funds to make it a HSR link to Seattle. They already have the amtrak service and the added train for the olympics. But $1-2 bn or so towards it and be done with it.

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