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Construction Corner: Crazy and sane high-speed rail ideas

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by Korky Koroluk

Every once in a while, a proposal comes along that leads one to wonder: Why? What's the need? Sometimes it's to demonstrate a technology. That was the purpose of the early experiments with high-speed trains. Sometimes it's an ego trip, which is why the top third of some of the world's tallest buildings are empty, existing only to make the building taller. One-upmanship.
Construction Corner: Crazy and sane high-speed rail ideas

But it's hard to classify the latest mega-project proposal to come along. It's for a kind of highway that would link London and New York. Through Siberia.

It's the brain-child of Vladimir Yakunin, who is president of Russian Railways.

One suspects that if the project were ever to go ahead, it would be because of the challenge of bridging the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.

Yakunin's road would cross the strait on a bridge, although details haven't been worked out. The narrowest stretch of water to cross is 88 km.

Construction, maintenance and repair of the bridge in an arctic winter could be a nightmare.

The cost would be enormous, possibly trillions of dollars. For the European and North American parts of the route, existing highway networks could be used. But crossing Siberia would be virtually all new construction, and the Russian construction industry is notorious for its low productivity.

Closer to home we have a big project inching forward in Ontario. The provincial government has taken the first steps in an environmental assessment of a high-speed rail (HSR) line linking Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, London and Windsor.

In this case, there is a real need. Highway traffic in the Toronto-Windsor corridor is heavy. The Kitchener area houses the country's most important high-tech cluster. And travellers in southwestern Ontario need an easy way to get to Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca has said the environmental assessment alone could take six years. There is much to assess, including the most appropriate route, the technology options that are available, and, of course, the project's environmental impact.

The rail service is part of the provincial government's long-term transit and infrastructure plan to $29 billion available over the next decade for priority infrastructure projects.

There has been discussion over the years of an HSR line linking Windsor and Quebec City through London, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.  That corridor is home to four of the seven largest Canadian metropolitan areas.

There have been studies, too, of an HSR line between Edmonton and Calgary, both with large populations sharing interests and needs. Those studies should be revived and updated.

Tunnels or bridges crossing the Bering Strait are great for amusement. But high-speed rail is important for its potential as a driver of regional and national economies, and for its environmental benefits, moving many people quickly with far fewer carbon emissions than older, slower forms of transportation. It should not be ignored.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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