High-speed rail in USA (and Canada) today — yet another boogie-woogie rumble Of a dream deferred?

Jan 18th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

Ms. Deschanel — too busy at the Golden Globes and whatnot in LA to hang with Citizen X in northern wilderness.

It has me taken a while to get into the latest Stephen Colbert intervention in the real world of US politics (in conjunction with his colleague, Jon Stewart — who recently claimed that both “t”s in his surname are silent, to give “Sewar” when said out loud).

But I have now been drawn in by the “Pro-Stephen Colbert Super PAC” TV ad in the South Carolina Republican primary, which boldly urges: “A vote for Herman Cain is a vote for America … He’s such a Washington outsider, he’s not even running for president.”

Only a seriously intermittently free country would tolerate such constructive nonsense. And this has affected my decision on what to type about in this blogazine posting, apparently due yesterday. (I’d like to say I was distracted by Zooey Deschannel, but alas ….)

Too much time wasted on news articles this morning (or was that yesterday morning?) has left a half-dozen possible topics: Federalism and Canadian public health care ; In search of Canadian Liberalism … again ; Ontario — “surely one of the most inarticulate communities in human culture” (Northrop Frye) ; Canadian economy — ups and downs ; Rising sun of the new global village ; and High-speed rail in USA (and Canada) today — yet another boogie-woogie rumble Of a dream deferred. (With apologies to Langston Hughes).

Under the influence of the Pro-Stephen Colbert Super PAC, I have selected the last of these topics, on high-speed rail in the USA (and Canada).  Those who feel this was the wrong decision can click on “Read the rest of this page” below, and then scroll down to an Appendix, which includes links to various source materials about each of the five other possible topics.

California High Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's rendering of a high-speed train speeding along the California coast. (California High Speed Rail Authority / Associated Press).

Meanwhile, the sources for US high-speed rail begin with a January 7, 2012 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Keep California’s bullet train on track … Despite recent negative reviews by experts, in the long term the rail project still makes sense.” This is followed by a January 11 response in the same illustrious publication headlined “California can’t afford the bullet train … At least, that’s the overwhelming sentiment among readers who’ve been responding to the board’s most recent editorial, ‘Keep California’s bullet train on track.’” Finally, on January 15 the sources conclude with a broader Washington Post piece headlined “Plans for high-speed rail are slowing down.”  And the first page of this more extensive report concludes with: “House Republicans were also among those who dug in against Obama’s high-speed rail vision, saying that outside of select regions, it did not fit a sprawling, car-loving nation served by nearly 50,000 miles of interstate highways and an extensive air travel network.” (And if you want to hear a bit more in this direction, you can also click on  “Read the rest of this page” below — or just read on if you already are below etc!)

On the unbearable lightness of being high-speed rail in North America …

Early at least higher-speed Turbo Train confronts truck at level crossing near Kingston, Ontario in December 1968. In fact, this much later drawing seems a little too sympathetic to the truck. Reporters on the train said it “cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter.”

CANADIAN WILDERNESS: The news about how, at best, “a 21st-century vision of train travel that President Obama promised would transform US transportation much as interstate highways did more than a half-century ago” is now “slowing down” will not surprise anyone who has any previous experience with efforts to promote high-speed rail anywhere in both the United States and Canada.. (Mexico may still be somewhat different, as in so much else, although who really knows, even now after almost two decades of NAFTA?)

In June 2009 The Walrus published a piece by Monte Paulsen which took the Canadian high-speed rail story back as far as 1968. (“Off the Rails … How Canada fell from leader to laggard in high-speed rail, and why that needs to change … On the morning of December 10, 1968, a shiny new locomotive [the so-called Turbo Train] left Toronto’s Union Station, pulling a gleaming train packed to its “power dome” with journalists … An hour later, the Turbo Train slammed into a truck,” at a level crossing near Kingston, Ontario. The good news is that the driver survived, even though the Turbo Train “cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter.”)

More recently, the Wikipedia article on “High-speed rail in Canada … may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.” But it more or less does make clear that the two most frequently discussed prospective Canadian high-speed rail routes are between Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, and Windsor and Quebec City in Ontario and Quebec. According to the article, “The Calgary Herald announced on April 18, 2007, that the provincial government had purchased land in downtown Calgary for a possible station or terminal … On April 7, 2011, Premier Stelmach said that the land being purchased for the new location of the Royal Alberta Museum could be used as the Edmonton terminal … In 2011, [current] Alberta premier Alison Redford said that the high speed rail is a priority for her. Saying ‘such an initiative could unite the province and send a message to Canada and the world about Alberta’s progress.’”

High-speed rail fleet at rest in Japan.

Who knows just what a more recent update might say? A Windsor-Quebec City line would in any case serve a lot more people (16 million some claim) than a line between Edmonton and Calgary (total Alberta population at the moment is less than 4 million). And when an upbeat Canada-Ontario-Quebec study of the issue was released in November 2011, the official Ontario Government announcement proclaimed: “The three governments are carefully considering next steps and will work closely moving forward.” Yet only a few days later the press was reporting that: “The federal government has ruled out funding for a highspeed rail link in the Windsor-Quebec corridor.”  And Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty (earlier “an unabashed proponent”) was saying “it’s a bad time to build a high-speed rail system … the Ontario government is already investing about $35 billion over the next three years in transportation projects.”

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest — back in the day when the original US passenger rail network was still a wonder to behold.

CAR-LOVING AMERICA: Meanwhile, back in the USA those who complain that Barack Obama is trying to Europeanize the United States can no doubt point to the plans for high-speed rail that are now slowing down as a case in point. A traditional objection to this transportation mode in both the United States and Canada is that population densities in most parts of North America in this sense are just not great enough to make it pay. And the January 15 Washington Post piece does a nice job of explaining why, in the USA today: “Now the nation’s only pending true high-speed rail project is facing a crisis moment in California, a Democratic stronghold known for its innovation.”

US Federal investments in high-speed rail, 2009-2011. Federal Railroad Administration / The Washington Post.

Yet if the House Republicans are in some degree onto something when they urge that “Obama’s high-speed rail vision … outside of select regions” does not “fit a sprawling, car-loving nation served by nearly 50,000 miles of interstate highways and an extensive air travel network,” quite a substantial chunk of the US population lives in the select regions where the concept does make sense. (The two leading examples are the California corridor from San Francisco to San Diego, and the Northeast corridor from Boston to the District of Columbia.) The underlying problem would seem to be that even in these places high-speed rail requires substantial up-front public investment. And this means a public sector much more flush with cash looking for something to be spent on than anything currently extant in either the United States or Canada. Even so, I still have a lot of respect for the January 7, 2012 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Keep California’s bullet train on track … Despite recent negative reviews by experts, in the long term the rail project still makes sense.”  The car-loving nation with an extensive air travel network will not agree. But it is in all likelihood living on borrowed time itself.

Appendix: Links to source materials on the five other topics Citizen X passed up this time (but may still type further about in subsequent postings on this site!)

German InterCity Express (ICE) train in Leipzig station.

FEDERALISM AND CANADIAN HEALTH CARE : “Premiers appeal to older voters in bid to pressure Harper on health … Some hoped to unite behind a call for a health-care innovation fund on top of the transfer payments, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper swiftly rejected that appeal, delivering the message through a television interview that the premiers learned about while they were meeting … Other efforts have been hobbled by resistance from Alberta, which stands to receive a dramatic boost in its funding under Ottawa’s plan” ;  “Tackling innovation solo, premiers hope to lure PM back to health table … the premiers have set their sights on a campaign to pressure the Harper government to move from its 10-year health-care funding plan before the next federal election … The premiers expressed unanimous anger this week about the way the plan was delivered, but they remain divided about the details” ; “Beware Ottawa bearing gifts: Classic federalism is back” [TOM FLANAGAN] ; “Why Harper is tuning out the premiers” [JEFFREY SIMPSON].

IN SEARCH OF CANADIAN LIBERALISM … AGAIN : “Narrowly spurned by Liberals, Sheila Copps throws in the towel” ; “Bob Rae’s advantage: He’s a political careerist … What Liberals are encouraged about is not new policy but the fact that the party is now in the hands of a seasoned political pro, one who has demonstrated a surefootedness that has been absent under the three previous leaders” [LAWRENCE MARTIN] ; “Liberal Party resists change … Convention ignored key issues of leadership and uniting the left” [GEOFFREY STEVENS].

An intercity train between Nanchang and Jiujiang in East China's Jiangxi province runs on its first journey, September 20, 2010. The intercity high-speed rail line connecting two major cities in the province is part of a long-term plan for all of China. Photo/Xinhua.

ONTARIO — “SURELY ONE OF THE MOST INARTICULATE COMMUNITIES IN HUMAN CULTURE” (Northrop Frye) : “Ontario sets out to change the way doctors work” ; “Hudak warns Ontario Liberals against Toronto casino … Mr. Hudak says he’s also worried that a gambling palace in Toronto will keep tourists away from existing casinos in places like Niagara” [ahem, among other things Mr. Hudak represents the riding of Niagara West-Glanbrook in the Ontario Legislative Assembly] ; “Ontario earns improved grade from private business for slashing red tape.”

CANADIAN ECONOMY — UPS AND DOWNS : “Mark Carney sees consumer debt burdens growing even fatter” ; “Canada’s international transactions in securities … November 2011 … Foreign investment in all types of Canadian securities strengthened in November with non-residents adding $15.0 billion to their holdings, the largest such inflow of funds since May” : “Europe’s economic turmoil creating uncertainty for Canada: Bank of Canada.”

Someone’s pipe-dream of a US Intercity Passenger Rail Network in 2050.

RISING SUN OF THE NEW GLOBAL VILLAGE : “China’s economy grows at slowest rate in more than two years” ; “Role reversal: Employers say they can’t find workers … Manpower Group’s worldwide survey of employers found a huge jump in US employers saying they were having trouble filling open jobs … ‘Employers are getting pickier and pickier … We want the perfect person to walk through the door’” ; “Sunday Times: Mossad agents behind Iran scientist assassination” ; “India-China ties face golden period: Chinese official … Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, said to be close to Chinese President Hu Jintao, wrote in an article in The Hindu … ‘While working hard to develop itself, China is fully committed to developing long-term friendship and cooperation with India’ … Dai’s comments came against the backdrop of recent discordant notes in bilateral ties …  China recently denied visa to an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer who was to go as a member of the Indian military delegation to China, on grounds that he was from Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state claimed by China. This led to India scaling down its delegation from the original 30 members to 15.”

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