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This article was published 17/1/2010 (2713 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ST. PAUL, Minn -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation here is developing a plan that could have a profound impact on our railways and airlines.
Earlier this month, the department released the most sweeping rail plan in Minnesota's history. It proposes high-speed passenger rail links among the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and other communities such as Chicago, Duluth and Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg link, which would be started in 2030, poses some age-old problems for Canadian politicians: Should Canada's rail services move goods and people east and west through Canada or should they be integrated with those in the United States?
Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was adamant that the CPR be built near the north shore of Lake Superior, even though the area involved was extremely rugged. The opposition leader, Edward Blake, thought the CPR should arrange for access to a line running south of the Great Lakes in the U.S. It would be cheaper to build and would produce more revenue.
Macdonald got his way, but more than 100 years later people still argue the matter. Canada's railways and trucking companies have solved the issue to their satisfaction: They are extending their services into many parts of the U.S. -- and making tidy profits.
Wawa in northern Ontario just can't compete with the allure of Chicago and Milwaukee. High-speed passenger trains, travelling at 180 to 240 km/h, are a hot issue now, partly because of terrorist incidents. "The public is ready for trains," says Myra Peterson, a country commissioner who has championed statewide planning for trains. "Every time we have something that happens in the air, like the Detroit incident, the public is more convinced that we need a viable option."
The Americans are ahead of us in railway planning thanks to billions in federal money and alert state officials who see rail as a way to promote growth.
But we are catching up. Diane Gray, CEO of Winnipeg's CentrePort, told the Free Press the key to the success of the inland port will be the development of a rail-access strategy. CentrePort Canada arranged for a 30-person group, including Premier Greg Selinger, to tour and make presentations last week at four inland American ports.
The state's legislature last spring commissioned Minnesota's first comprehensive passenger rail and freight plan. A background document says rail is already transporting 30 per cent of all freight in the state, reducing heavy truck traffic on highways.
There are a number of reasons for the increased interest in rail, including:
Time: Rail is competitive with air on short hauls. A friend and I recently spent 6.5 hours driving to Minneapolis. A plane trip would have taken a couple of hours, but then you have to add on the three hours you have to be at the airport before an international flight, the time you spend getting from the airport to your lodgings and the hassle at today's airports.
Cost: A flight to Minneapolis from Winnipeg can cost about $1,000, far more expensive than a car trip. No U.S. passenger trains come to Winnipeg. But train travel in other areas -- Vancouver to Seattle for example -- is up to a quarter of the cost of airline travel.
Environment: Because the most fuel is burned during takeoff and landing, short-haul flights are a wasteful source of greenhouse gases. The warming effect of emissions in the clouds are about 2.7 times greater than on the ground.
Comfort: Rail offers better seating, bigger bathrooms, Wi-Fi, and a better view of the countryside.
Manitoba's rail connections with St. Paul go back more than 100 years. A group of investors -- J.J. Hill, of St. Paul, a Canadian-born rail buccaneer; Donald Smith of the Hudson's Bay Co. and George Stephen, of the Bank of Montreal -- made a pot-full after they took over a St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railway.
"Catch them while their pockets are full," Macdonald was advised by his confidant John Henry Pope.
Macdonald did. In 1881, the three men were the basis of a new syndicate that was given the contract for the CPR.
Hill also played a key role in the building of the Great Northern Railway in the northern U.S. His railway endeavours earned him a personal fortune of $63 million, when a buck was a buck. You can explore his mansion today. It was Minnesota's largest and most expensive house -- five floors, 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a two-storey skylit art gallery and a reception hall nearly 30 metres long.
His secret of success: "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work." When it comes to rail, America's state and federal governments, unlike our drowsy politicians, seem to have gotten the message.
Tom Ford is managing editor of The Issues Network.