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It’s either a terrific example of foresight or a woefully naïve idea. I suspect it’s the latter.

David Mosely, president of the Amherst & Area Chamber of Commerce, has gone on record supporting the idea of high-speed rail connecting major Maritime centres – at a minimum, Moncton to Halifax. He rightly points out that developed nations around the world have or are developing high-speed rail. He thinks a high-speed rail (henceforth HSR) corridor would be good for Amherst and the Maritimes – that instead of offering cash to companies to lure them here, we should develop top quality infrastructure and use that as bait.

What Mosely is proposing might make long-term sense. Maybe. But it represents a truly monumental public investment on the theory – the gamble – it will pay dividends somewhere down the line.

A high-speed connection from Moncton to Halifax will cost billions of dollars. When research was done on a corridor connecting Toronto to Montreal, the estimated cost was almost $10 billion.

What ultimately matters, of course, is if the return on investment is good. I encountered one study that said a high-speed track between Calgary and Edmonton made sense economically – that Alberta’s economy would see a net gain from the dollars spent.

The Maritimes are not Alberta, however. Nor are they Europe or Japan. We may be one of the only industrial countries not to have high-speed rail, but we’re also the second biggest piece of real estate on the planet and we have a comparatively small population.

Japan has high-speed rail. Japan also has over 100 million people living in the corridor high-speed rail services. We would have about one per cent of that customer base.

France and Germany are also densely populated. Dense population might be the hallmark of high-speed rail. Dense population is what we don’t have. In fact, the Maritimes are more rural than the other provinces.

Expenses don’t disappear once the thing is built, either. To be useful, the train needs to run regularly. The building process alone will add a few thousand dollars each to the public debt of a million Maritimers – how much more will the (inevitably) publicly subsidized service add?

The most likely scenario is that HSR would be a giant money pit – over-budget to build, and pigging out at the public trough every year to run. I think one of the best ways to balance a budget is to spend less. Big spending business ideas are the opposite of what I think this region needs.

I will grant this, though: there is a scenario where high-speed rail works, but it requires a societal overhaul. If everyone embraced it and used it, HSR could work. But we’d be talking about a fundamental shift in the way Canadians live. A huge number of people would need to decide they liked trains more than cars – not a few, not some, but many, maybe even most. And the theory that it would be a huge asset for smaller communities on the line is just that, a theory (HSR may decide Amherst is too small to warrant a stop, anyway).

So is HSR for the Maritimes stupid? Not stupid, no, but ill-advised. It may be a good idea, but only if it works, and I can think of a lot of good reasons it wouldn’t work.  Is that a bet you want to take with a few billion dollars? Being a visionary is great, but you also need to be realistic about whether or not people will join your crusade. And, as with all unnecessary, big government projects, I question even the morality of expecting Maritimers to shoulder the burden of building HSR when only a fraction of them will use it.

Sorry David, too much money for too many question marks.

I suspect rural areas of the Maritimes and Canada generally will have a population resurgence over the next couple of decades as telecommuting becomes the norm. We won’t need to whisk people between cities at high-speed because many of them will be able to live in Moncton and work in Halifax without ever leaving New Brunswick. HSR may be addressing a problem that will be vanishing just as rail comes online.

(I was on vacation last week, hence the long gap between posts.)


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