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Work may begin as early as this fall to develop a high-speed rail link between Quebec City and Windsor, Transport Minister David Collenette said.

The project, which would take years to complete and ultimately cost at least $3-billion, still needs cabinet approval but could begin moving by September, Mr. Collenette said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

That would fit a projected timetable he set in September 2002, when he said he hoped to see the rail link begin moving in one year's time.

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He was standing by his projection.

"I'm hopeful that within the time frame that I discussed, which would end September 2003, we would be able to move on this," Mr. Collenette said.

Preliminary work on the much-discussed megaproject has been completed, giving the federal cabinet a framework that could be fleshed out later.

Travelling at 200 kilometres an hour, it is projected that the high-speed link would make the trip between Montreal and Toronto in only three hours, down from 4.5 hours.

It would also be a crowning achievement for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as he seeks to stamp his imprimatur on the country before leaving office.

As early as spring 2002, the rail link was under debate by the influential economic development committee of cabinet as a precursor to being placed before the full cabinet.

"There's a lot of work being done. I'm hopeful a decision could be made soon."

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The cabinet, which is expected to meet again later this month, still has not given the pricey project the green light.

But Mr. Collenette hinted broadly that he has support for the rail link, which could be a step toward meeting the federal government's Kyoto emission-control commitments by getting at least some drivers off the highway and into railway cars.

"A lot of (cabinet colleagues) are aware of this and a lot of them have been involved in discussions. … I'm pleasantly surprised by the kind of things I hear," he said. "I'm surprised by the amount of interest, there's a lot of people quite keen about it."

The project has been the subject of quiet speculation for years.

One proponent of the project has impeccable political links: Via Rail chairman Jean Pelletier, former chief of staff and longtime friend of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Pelletier told reporters in April that he felt "very optimistic" that federal approval for the high-speed rail link was mere months away, adding he believed it had "overwhelming support."

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Mr. Chrétien himself has spoken in favour of high-speed rail.

The project would most likely be managed by Via Rail and require new rail to be built to help Via meet its objectives of faster, more frequent and on-time service.

It would likely also rely on JetTrain technology being developed by Bombardier.

The Montreal-based multinational is one of the world's largest producers of rail equipment and has been a strong backer of the Liberal party.

Bombardier has also been going through some financial turbulence and would probably welcome a meaty federal contract.

The high-speed rail link could also help meet some of Ottawa's commitments to the Kyoto accord, which calls on governments to reduce emissions.

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That is an important factor in the final decision on high-speed rail, Mr. Collenette said.

But government must also consider the impact of the project on other modes of transportation, from bus and freight haulers to the troubled airline industry.

"I personally feel it is a project that really should go ahead - but just because I feel that way, doesn't mean my colleagues would agree."

There is also a serious public-policy issue at stake - the project would clearly signal strong federal support for rail.

Mr. Collenette shrugged off the possibility that the Liberal leadership race to replace Mr. Chrétien, who is retiring in February, could hijack the political agenda in Ottawa this fall.

Some think the distraction could delay several projects and pieces of legislation.

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"This government is in power and could take the decisions … you can't put everything on hold just because there's a leadership race," Mr. Collenette said.

The long-time Chrétien supporter has endorsed front-runner Paul Martin in the leadership race that will culminate in a party vote this November.

The rail link would be a popular job-creator in the vote-rich swath between Quebec and Windsor, even though it would take years to complete.

Some of the start-up money may be available from the $2-billion Kyoto kitty established in last February's budget to fund sustainable transportation and renewable energy projects over five years.

Dipping into that fund may be essential to selling the project.

A slowdown in the Canadian economy means that federal dollars will become much harder to find.

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In late June, Finance Minister John Manley - who has also spoken in favour of high-speed rail - dramatically downgraded his growth projections for 2003 and warned that this year's surplus may be less than expected.

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