Canada's Porter Airlines would be unimaginable in Western Europe. Porter is the upstart little carrier, perched on Toronto's island airport, that's turning a simple business model-an abundance of remarkably short-distance flights between an abundance of cities-into a success. Starting in May, Porter will offer as many as 84 flights a day between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. You could wait longer for a Toronto streetcar than a Porter flight.
Why does the Porter model work? Easy-because the rail model doesn't. Taking the train between those three cities is painfully slow and inconvenient. Porter wouldn't get off the ground in Europe, where high-speed rail is making life uncomfortable for airlines on routes of 500 kilometres or so, and utterly miserable on routes of 250 kms. European rail is getting so big so fast, and the trains so blazingly quick-320 kms/h is routinely achieved in eastern France, 575 kms/h was hit on a test run-that Citigroup analyst Ally Ma said, "There's no doubt that high-speed rail will defeat airlines on all the routes of less than 800 kilometres."
Toronto to Ottawa is a mere 350 kms; Toronto to Montreal is 500. Some of Porter's other Canadian and U.S. routes are equally short. Likewise for Air Canada. You might think a few of the routes would be natural candidates for high-speed rail, all the more so since Canada is a wealthy country that professes to care about infrastructure, business efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction, job creation, nation-building-and not being stuffed into the economy seat next to some wheezing brute in a Moores suit. You might, but you'd be wrong. Too bad for Canada.
To be sure, Europe is more of a natural fit for high-speed rail because of the shorter distances and far higher population densities. The concept makes little sense in Canada except for the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle (thence to the entire corridor from Windsor to Quebec City), and perhaps the straight run between Edmonton and Calgary. For decades, high-speed rail concepts have been floated in Canada, only to die before the first spike was driven into the ground.
High costs and political squabbling were the killer, though an epic government mistake made a bad situation worse. Canada is one of the few countries where rail infrastructure-the tracks and so on-is not publicly owned. The railbed was sold when Canadian National Railway was privatized in 1995. As a result, VIA Rail, the politically powerless, money-starved Crown corporation that runs the passenger service, has to wedge its trains in between the snail-slow freight trains. A Canadian high-speed rail service would require its own, or mostly its own, tracks.
As for Europe, high-speed rail (generally defined as trains that go at least 250 kms/h) was launched in France in 1981. The network expanded tenfold between 1985 and 2009, to more than 6,000 kms, and could nearly treble by 2025, UBS Investment Research says, adding that related infrastructure spending could top ¤100 billion in the next decade. Canada's own Bombardier, unable to compete in the North American high-speed market for the simple reason that it barely exists, is doing a booming business supplying fast, sleek trains to several European countries.
When high-speed rail and airlines compete on the same route, the airlines are goners. Take Madrid to Seville, a distance of about 530 kms. Before high-speed rail, airlines had a 40% market share on that route (regular trains and cars had the rest). In 2002, after the bullet trains arrived, the train share went to more than 60%, while airlines plummeted to 8%, even though air and train ticket prices are often roughly the same. Airline market shares also collapsed on the Paris-Lyon, Hamburg-Frankfurt and London-Paris routes.
The bad news: The faster the train, the higher the cost. The Paris-Lyon run is thought to be the only high-speed route in Europe that covers both its operating and capital expenses. The other routes require fat subsidies because construction costs are so high. The cost of laying dedicated tracks ranges from a low of ¤4.7 million per kilometre in France, to a high of ¤66 million in Italy, according to the International Union of Railways.
Train-haters love to cite these figures, but they conveniently avoid tallying up the endless billions spent on building and maintaining highways, urban streets and roads to nowhere-the suburbs. Suburbs wouldn't exist without road subsidies. Nor do the train-haters talk about the environment. To move a passenger one kilometre, a car emits an estimated eight times more carbon dioxide than rail, while a plane emits 11 times more. High-speed rail may be expensive, but that doesn't mean it lacks value.
Canada's stub of a passenger rail network is more than an embarrassment; it's an industrial, environmental and efficiency letdown. It's also bad for our aching bums.