“A Tale of Two Transit Plans – Part 1”

This past week I expressed through Twitter some concerns I had over the Ontario PC Party Leader Patrick Brown’s lukewarm response to London’s pursuit of High Speed Rail (HSR) in the province.  While I normally do not comment on Provincial affairs, I was disappointed by the new Conservative Leader’s rather tame stance on HSR and wanted to state my arguments in favour of a much more aggressive posture by our community in support of this investment.

For the record, I am “politically agnostic”.   While I was involved in party politics at the provincial level several years ago, I now have no party affiliation or preference, and financially support and vote for candidates based on their character and merits, regardless of their party affiliation.

My reason for raising my objection to the Conservative Leader’s current position is that, in my opinion, further delay in the construction of a HSR system beyond the next decade would be harmful if not potentially fatal to London’s economy.

I believe this for three reasons.

First, I believe that London needs HSR if it hopes to retain any level of economic influence.  For years, London has harvested the benefits of its location, nestled nicely alongside the 401/I75 corridor between two major urban centres, and surrounded by an abundance of fresh water and rich agricultural lands.  It has also benefited from its proximity to a wealth of high-quality post-secondary institutions, medical care facilities, world-class manufacturing centres, and a large number of substantial capital and consumer markets all within a day’s drive.  The city has also been blessed with a strong, well-educated work force, and an impressive cohort of successful business leaders who established impressive enterprises and head offices in London, often making the city its national headquarters.

Unfortunately, as a number of our homegrown companies have since been absorbed into larger enterprises elsewhere, London lost a little of its economic cache and evolved into more of a branch plant producer.  And while the economy has remained steady, decisions affecting our city were now more often made by leaders outside of the city, and frequently with little consideration for the city’s interests.

In addition to this change in business influence, our community also began to lose ground as congestion along 401/I75 corridor created more of a transportation hassle than a convenience, and the capital and consumer markets so vital to our economy began to place a higher value on knowledge, talent and virtual services over locally produced hard goods.

In response, London has done a pretty decent job reinventing its local economy.  The number of local high-tech companies and jobs has increased substantially in recent years, and the city has had some success focusing its industry development efforts on higher value-added industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care, defense and food processing.  However, the city’s GDP has largely remained at or just above 1-percent annually for the past 15 years.  And this growth rate is unlikely to improve given that an increasingly congested 401 increasingly isolates our community from its much-needed access to global markets.

This leads me to my second reason for HSR.  I believe that in addition to creating a transportation alternative to the 401, HSR provides London with access to the two most important assets necessary to advance our economy – talent and capital.

In my experience, the time and hassle associated with getting outside interests to and from London represents one of the biggest barriers we face in our efforts to attract investment to our city. Today, it is not unusual for a return trip from one of the larger economic hubs in Toronto and Detroit to consume 5-6 hours of travel time, an investment that fewer and fewer outside interests are prepared to make with so many other more convenient investor opportunities available elsewhere.

Our regional airport helps, but short-haul carriage is not enough, and often too expensive to make it worthwhile.  London needs to make it easier for outside interests, be they companies, investors or consumers, to get to and from London; and HSR can play a significant role in meeting that requirement.

Third, the Province of Ontario needs HSR to maintain its competitive balance with similar jurisdictions in other countries.  You will note, I did not say competitive advantage.  The advantage associated with the early adoption of a HSR system is now long gone.  Countries throughout Europe and Asia have made the rapid movement of people and capital central to their economic growth strategies.  For example, just last week I was in the Jiangsu Province of China, a province roughly the same geographic size of Southern Ontario.  In 2007, Jiangsu did not have a single kilometre of high speed rail track.  Today, it has laid over 1,600 HSR kilometres of track and moves nearly 100 million passengers per year on its HSR system.  Travel times between major centres that once took 5-6 hours by car, now take 2 hours by train.  Moreover, the 300 km/h system is safe, clean and operates with the precision of a Swiss watch.  Similar systems are running in Japan, France, Italy, Britain and high congestion areas in the US.  Ontario can no longer afford to wait if it hopes and expects its companies and communities to compete on the world stage with economic powerhouses who operate with that level of transportation horse power.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon our community leaders be it Council, the Chamber, and/or the private sector, that London not just show its support for HSR, but push hard to make this part of every provincial party platform and convey that further delays are not an option.

Fortunately, the Province of Ontario has done a pretty good job planning for HSR.  In tomorrow’s post, I shall outline the effectiveness of the Ontario plan and contrast it with our own BRT effort, and needless to say, the comparison will not be flattering.