How high speed rail has revived small town Spain

Creative Commons Photo by Sean Munson

Creative Commons Photo by Sean Munson

In recent months, many governments have decided to spend their way out of the current recession. The United States has seen a scramble to fund “shovel ready” projects that will create the most short term jobs, regardless of the usual criteria of worthiness. It’s the same old story – politicians taking the easiest, most expedient option. But word comes from Spain of the benefits of looking ahead. The Wall Street Journal printed an article last Monday about the success of the Spanish high speed passenger rail network, named AVE (meaning both Spanish high speed and bird). It’s the kind of epic, transformative project that requires not only billions of dollars but also the will of an entire nation. Only a decade and a half has passed since the first line from Madrid to Seville was inaugurated, but Spain is now beginning to see the long-term benefits. And judging from their successes, it’s exactly the kind of the stimulus that Canada needs.

The most immediate payback to breaking ground on a high-speed line would be the thousands of jobs created in a stroke. Not only construction jobs, but engineering jobs, planning jobs (think of all the environmental assessments!), and jobs for those that serve the workers. But I’ve never been a fan of creating jobs for the sake of jobs; there’s got to be more – and more there is. The most remarkable thing about the AVE has been that it has resuscitated (reincarnated?) the economies of the smaller cities and towns along the lines that have been given stations. The distances between these towns and major centres have been significantly shortened. By extension, they’ve become much more competitive. Not only that, but they’ve done so in a sustainable manner. Building a freeway has similar effects but creates traffic congestion, air pollution and distorts the shape of the city. Rather than being centered around a vibrant, walkable core with a train station taking people in and out, freeway development is car oriented, linear, spread out, and generally a waste of resources.

2008 was the year of reversing fortunes in Confederation. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland became rich provinces, and Ontario became poor almost overnight. The gravity of the decline of auto manufacturing in Southern Ontario can’t be understated. There are hundreds of cities and towns that were struggling, even with the auto money. Now they’re becoming ghost towns. And it’s doubtful that those manufacturing jobs will come back, even after the recession ends. What better way to revive the economy of Ontario’s new rust-belt than with high speed rail? Assuming that the first line built would run between Toronto and Montreal, that could mean immediate stimulus for places like Oshawa (GM’s headquarters in Canada), Kingston, Belleville, and Cornwall. If the line were continued to Windsor, it would undoubtably run through other areas that have been hit even worse – Brantford, Hamilton, and of course Canada’s own motor city.

Not only would high-speed rail revive these towns, but it would transform their economically-important downtowns from places to avoid into key transportation hubs. It would fill in the doughnuts that these cities have become. This in itself would foster the type of main-street small business that politicians always laud as the heart of our economies. And it would get planners salivating over the prospect of making our communities walkable again and starving big box centres out of business.

According to the Wall Street Journal article, detractors of Spain’s AVE point out that it has been funded heavily, to the detriment of the country’s rail freight network. But there’s no reason why both can’t share the same track. High speed freight is arguably more important than high speed passenger rail. It would shrink our dependence on dirty, expensive trucking, and, as the article points out, it would protect our economy from future oil price fluctuations.

There’s no reason that Canada would have to follow the Spanish model exactly. We don’t necessarily need trains running at 300 km/h right away. In fact, most of the locomotives currently in use by Via Rail can top 150 km/h. Many sections of track in Canada run at 40 km/h right now because they’ve been left in a state of disrepair for decades.

The Via line that runs through the city of Guelph, Ontario operates at a crawl because it literally travels through the centre of a small residential street without fences to keep hockey-playing children away. Only three trains a day run on that route because there’s congestion on the 10 or so kilometres connecting it to Toronto, leaving entire regions in the dark. Only two trains per day actually make it to the terminus, Sarnia, population 89,000. That route travels an average of 65 km/h, parallelling a freeway that would allow drivers to travel at 110 km/h. Sarnia has no Greyhound service – the sluggish (and often late) train is the only way out for those that are carless.

There’s so much potential for rail in Canada, and lack of demand isn’t holding it back. These are very surmountable barriers. With simple improvements to tracks, rail routes that aren’t currently able to compete with even Greyhound would be able to beat cars and bring cities and towns closer together. Instead of pouring billions into an AVE-grade route from Toronto to Montreal, let’s start with improving track across the country so that the trains we own already can reach their full speed once in a while.

But don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take the big step and go for European speeds – eventually. All I’m saying is that there are plenty of low-hanging fruit to keep us busy – easy improvements that don’t cost much but make a huge difference. But there’s nothing like a big investment in a shiny new fast train to drive investment, to rally a nation together, and to stir men’s blood.

It’s remarkable how tempting this issue should be for politicians. Improving existing rail systems allows urban folk to get around faster, and offers immediate jobs and future economic development for small-town Canada. It may not be the fastest, easiest choice, but it’s a political no-brainer.

Further reading:

Obama’s been dropping hints about breaking ground on his own high-speed rail network. Notably, the proposed lines run to Vancouver and Montreal but with no connection to Toronto.

A friend from Guelph has a stronger opinion – somewhat against high-speed rail – but still very reasonable. Here’s his take.

Are airships another solution to intercity travel? Mike here at Planning Pool certainly thinks so, at least for crossing oceans. It definitely looks tempting . . . and comfortable!

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One Response to “How high speed rail has revived small town Spain”

  1. How high speed rail has revived small town Spain | Planning Pool « metro babel said:

    May 19, 09 at 3:02 pm

    [...] high speed rail has revived small town Spain | Planning Pool How high speed rail has revived small town Spain | Planning Pool. AVE trainsets at Madrid Atocha – photo by Sean [...]