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Carr: All Aboard

The airline industry may not care if passenger rail’s future runs through major airports. Perhaps it should.


September 27, 2007
By David Carr

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I am going to declare my bias upfront. I love passenger trains and
insist on riding the rails whenever time allows. Not many in air
transport share my enthusiasm. In 2005, while the airline industry
struggled under the burden of escalating user fees and other charges,
Ottawa was writing VIA a $41 cheque for every passenger carried. And
the federal government didn’t slap rail passengers with a security
charge after the March 2004 terrorist bombing of commuter trains in
Spain relevant to what air travellers have had to pay since 9/11.

There
is no argument that passenger rail is expensive. Even in the UK where
British Rail was chopped up and sold off to a network of private sector
operators, rail gobbles up 40% of the government’s transport budget and
carries only 8% of the country’s passenger requirement.

That is
too rich for our blood, but it should not be a deterrent for a bold new
Canadian transport policy linking intercity and highspeed rail with
airports as a way of reducing demand for flights on short-haul routes
under 600 kilometres. Especially since airline service cutbacks,
security hassles and longer airport wait times are already creating a
ready-made market for such alternatives.

In January 1969, the
Penn Central (later Amtrak) Metroliner demonstrated that trains can
compete with airlines on the crowded New York-Philadelphia-Washington
corridor. The Europeans have since grabbed the ball and run with it.
Frankfurt Airport’s AIRail station offers an integrated service
including seamless baggage transfer. More than 200 trains depart
Frankfurt Airport daily, including code-share services that Lufthansa
has with German Rail (DB) on certain routes.

Likewise, the
construction of a high-speed rail line between Paris and Brussels has
replaced air as the favoured means of travel. Air France has suspended
service from Paris to Brussels and now charters carriages on the
railway. The elimination of 10 flights a day has an estimated annual
savings of 6,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Can the same work for
Canada? Our population is neither large enough nor as concentrated to
support a network to match Germany’s Intercity Express (ICE) or
Amtrak’s Boston-New York-Washington. A $1.3-billion dedicated rail link
connecting Vancouver International Airport with the downtown, and a
similar plan for Toronto, suggests planners ‘get it’; but not really.
Neither service will offer a seamless air/rail transfer, nor will the
airport be plugged into a broader intercity rail system.

Ontario/Quebec
and Alberta have each studied high-speed passenger rail options. Both
reports arrived at similar conclusions: a service could be profitable
provided governments pick up the tab for the infrastructure.

Technology
has expanded the options and lowered the cost of building some form of
high-speed rail link. Bombardier’s Jet Train can operate at speeds of
up to 240 kilometres per hour on existing and upgraded track. This
falls short of the 320 km/h of France’s TGV, but the total investment
along the Toronto-Montreal corridor is $5.8 billion, compared with $16
billion for a dedicated high-speed rail service.

Bombardier has
temporarily mothballed the Jet Train following several commercial
setbacks including cancellation of a proposed $3-billion redevelopment
of the Quebec-Windsor corridor. Perhaps Ottawa’s sudden interest in all
things green might put high-speed rail back on the fast track. But it
would be pure folly to do so if airports were not included as an
extension of traditional downtown-to-downtown packages.

The
future of passenger rail exists along routes under 600 kilometres,
which also make up the bulk of all flights in North America. Railway
stations buried in the lower levels of airports along high-density
corridors with quality service and seamless integration between VIA
Rail, Air Canada, WestJet and alliance partners would revolutionize the
way we travel. Yes, airlines run the risk of an upstart trying to fill
the gap with fares lower than the train. But as Louis Turpen, former
CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, told a transport
conference, “we’ve got to start to reverse this trend that there is an
inalienable right to fly under all circumstances.”


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