This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Aaron Wudrick, August 2, 2022
It’s not every day that a throwaway promise by a politician invites so much consternation, but Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s pledge late last year to travel the country by train to talk about the perils of carbon emissions managed to do just that.
Guilbeault apparently didn’t bother to check the schedule, as the pandemic meant that, until recently, VIA Rail had been running fewer trains. He also apparently didn’t check a map, as VIA doesn’t serve five provincial capitals, which makes a tour to “all parts of the country” problematic by definition.
On social media, talk soon turned to how embarrassing it was that we didn’t have a latticework of iron snaking across the land the way they do in Europe or Japan, or why we don’t have a bullet train running between Toronto and Montreal. If only, the story goes, we had leaders with the vision and gumption to rectify this gross injustice!
However, the fact that we don’t have more trains — never mind high-speed ones — is no mystery at all. It’s perfectly logical and understandable, and a direct consequence of entirely reasonable, economically literate decisions taken by governments over the past half-century.
For starters, unlike places such as Europe and Japan, Canada has a much lower population density — even in the densest parts. At its widest definition, the 1,150 kilometre corridor from Quebec City to Windsor, Ont., for example, has a population of around 18 million. The equivalent corridor in Japan of almost identical length, known as the Tokaido corridor, has a population of 75 million.
Next up is the reality that North America’s reliance on the automobile has shaped the physical development of our communities over the last century. That has implications, not just for travel within communities, but between them: even if you could convince more people to take the train instead of driving, unless you’re arriving in a large city with an extensive public transit network, you will be forced to rent a car, take taxis or wait at bus stops in order to get around.
Perhaps it’s a shame that North Americans, blessed with plenty of space and (until recently) affordable cars and gasoline, have been reluctant to adopt European commuting habits. But that’s the reality we are dealing with. Wishing it away won’t somehow make trains viable in this country, and policymakers would be foolish to try.
Some train boosters concede that the economics may not make much sense, but insist that the need to reduce carbon emissions is so pressing that it makes building more rail an imperative, cost be damned. But this argument loses much of its attraction once you look at both the opportunity cost of spending the same money on other ways to reduce emissions, and the likelihood of seducing sufficient numbers of people away from their cars.
Simply put, rail can only really rack up big emissions reductions if it induces widespread, as opposed to marginal, changes in aggregate travel behaviour. Meanwhile, dedicating tens of billions to rail infrastructure would be misallocating scarce resources away from other projects or initiatives that could get better emissions-reduction bang for the buck.
It’s also worth noting that technological advances, in the form of both autonomous and electric vehicles, will only weaken the appeal of trains over cars. Why? Because for most consumers, the main deterrents to driving are traffic and safety (which will be mitigated, someday, by smart cars that can talk to each other) and the price of gas (which is rendered moot when your car doesn’t need any).
I say all this not without a little personal regret. I happen to like trains and subways, and prefer to avoid driving when possible; until I turned 30, I had always lived in urban centres, ranging from my hometown Kitchener-Waterloo, to big cities abroad like London and Hong Kong.
But once the surface is scratched, demands for more rail in Canada, high speed or otherwise, tend to boil down to a combination of national pride (because trains are impressive engineering feats and look really cool) and preference projection (not everyone is as keen on trains as you are.) These are shaky foundations on which to build major infrastructure projects — which is why Canadian policymakers would be wise to make sure projects like high-speed rail never leave the station.
Aaron Wudrick is the director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s domestic policy program.