Skip to main content

As Canadian governments prepare to invest large sums of public money in infrastructure to help stimulate a troubled economy, it is essential that they choose projects that will be of value long after the recession is over.

Make-work projects make no long-term sense; the aim should be to seize on the opportunity - particularly at a time when building costs are low - to make overdue investments to boost productivity, improve the quality of life and make the country more environmentally responsible.

That being the case, it was encouraging to hear a member of the Conservative caucus arguing last week for one of Canada's most pressing infrastructure needs: a modern passenger rail system.

What Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro is proposing may be too ambitious for launch in the foreseeable future. A high-speed rail link between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa - which would cut the travel time between Canada's largest city and its national capital in half - is an intriguing prospect.

But years of planning would be required before any shovels were in the ground, so it would not provide the short-term job creation that is expected to be a requirement of any new stimulus spending.

That does not mean it should be discounted - Canada remains the only G-8 country without high-speed rail service - but only that advocates of improved rail service should also turn some of their focus to immediate upgrades.

Those potential upgrades are in no short supply. Forget about high-speed trains; there is effectively no express service between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, making the rail an impractical option for those who don't have the time to stop in Kingston, Cobourg and Smiths Falls along the way.

Meanwhile, it is not an option at all for those who wish to travel to or from Calgary, which does not register on Via Rail's map. It is embarrassing that since the Dayliner made its final run in 1985, there has been no train service between Calgary and Edmonton - the two largest cities in Canada's most economically dynamic province.

Railway passengers who wish to travel to Calgary are now absurdly told to go Edmonton, which is 276 kilometres away, and make their own way from there.

While the prospects for high-speed rail are being studied, there are less glamorous ways of simultaneously improving service and creating jobs. Notably, additional tracks could be laid down on major routes to provide express service and to eliminate delays caused by passenger trains sharing tracks with those carrying freight.

The procurement of new trains and upgrade of well-aged existing ones would further boost Canadian industry, provided most of the production was domestic. And of course, there is the matter of adding a now non-existent passenger service in Alberta's busiest corridor.

The notion of a non-partisan "rail caucus," of which Mr. Del Mastro is the leader, sounds rather quaint. But even if it is overreaching slightly, its priorities are well in line with Canada's present and long-term needs.