Please tell me, does anybody know?/ Where does the big train go?

Am I happy that Dean Del Mastro wants high-speed rail for the Montreal-Toronto corridor (with a thoughtful little detour to Ottawa?) Absolutely. Am I really, really surprised because all along, I took Del Mastro for a gallumphing jamook without a policy bone in his body? Oh yeah, you bet. Words cannot express. So how to square the proposal and its source? Two ways, it seems to me:

  • Dean Del Mastro has depths to him that none of us could have suspected. Mea culpa, Dean!
  • (or) he is operating on remote control from the PMO. He has become a human trial balloon. Float, Dean, float!
  • (or) It’s a profoundly dumb idea, and only Dean and I could ever love it. (I had to anticipate that one, because you have to know it’s coming in the comments below.)

(Incidentally, here’s your soundtrack for this post. Click on the little speaker icons and you’ll get some rail-appropriate tunage.)

For arguments in favour of high-speed rail, read my definitive opus on the subject, written from the rolling French countryside. I should note that when that column ran, readers responded with the sound of crickets chirping, which is what I usually get when I turn all policy-wonk. But I did get a thoughtful email from a Senior Figure in the Harper crew, playfully contesting some of my assertions (hammering a TGV line through the Rockies: uh, not gonna happen) but not dismissing the idea outright. Based on this admittedly reed-thin shred of evidence, I now suspect Del Mastro’s little sortie did not catch a lot of people in Langevin by surprise. Indeed, here was a Shadowy Eminence in that very edifice yesterday, briefing reporters on the need for jumbo infrastructure outlays in the (oddly Martinesquely-dubbed) Most Important Budget Ever.

A few thoughts, then.

  • None of this is a guarantee that anything will happen on the high-speed-rail front. I have very high regard for somewhere between one and three of these men, but I think it’s safe to say that any project whose main public champions are Dean Del Mastro, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest is not, yet, precisely a juggernaut.
  • high-speed rail has its virtues (see the definitive opus, op. cit.), but it’s a terrible way to provide “fiscal stimulus” to salve a recession. I hope this is obvious. The planning, approval, and procurement pipeline would be very long indeed, probably more than a decade, so if anyone ever does try to sell such a project as some kind of stimulus, please laugh and throw things. If high-speed rail is defensible, it’s as an incrementally greener way to move human traffic through our densest population corridor, as a productivity boost, but not as a Response to the Crisis.
  • Incidentally, if you want a nifty stimulus, all you tax cut/spending program people should look for some kind of truce. Here’s one. If the problem with tax cuts is that there is no guarantee they’ll be spent, and the problem with spending is that it procures no cost-of-living benefit on ordinary consumers, then why not find a guaranteed-spending program that reduces consumers’ bills? Send armies of work crews into homes to install the sort of energy-saving features we all know are available but that few of us have bothered to install. You get an immediate pop in skilled-labour employment. And consumers benefit with lower heating bills, indefinitely. That wasn’t so hard.

So to sum up: High-speed rail cannot help Canada through the current economic unpleasantness. But I believe longstanding arguments in its favour still hold. It is entirely possible that Del Mastro has become a bold free thinker. With best wishes to him for the new year, I hope he hasn’t.

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