Letters: September 2009
Readers’ letters; and, is Dave Hughes a “prophet of doom”?
The Beaten Track
About the only thing that qualifies me to address Monte Paulsen’s “Off the Rails” is the thirty years I put in as an engineer at CN and VIA. So if you don’t mind a few comments from an old hog-head who takes exception to the idea that Canada needs high-speed rail, well, let’s kick that brake off and get this thing out of the station, shall we?
Maybe because trains hold such mythological importance in the Canadian narrative, Paulsen includes one of the great Canadian railroad myths in his own: passenger trains regularly giving way to freights. The former do indeed “take the siding” to accommodate the much longer freights, but what I saw when I was up in the engine, especially in the heavily travelled multi-track corridor between Toronto and Montreal, is the exact opposite of what Paulsen describes; that is, 12,000-ton freights, idling their sixteen-cylinder diesel locomotives, while the humble VIA train, laden only with environmentally enlightened passengers, manoeuvred between tracks. My experience tells me that, nineteen times out of twenty, CN’s rail traffic control centre favoured the VIA trains.
To his credit, Paulsen avoids one of the common pitfalls in discussing high-speed rail: “expert” opinion from the advocacy group Transport 2000 (the British wing of which is now called the Campaign for Better Transport). Whether one uses the polite term “enthusiasts” to describe such devotees or the more self-explanatory “foamers,” as we called them, is largely irrelevant. Somehow that organization has managed, like a computer virus, to infect the Rolodex of practically every wretched scribe who has committed the words “high-speed rail” to paper. Of course, Paul Langan, the leader of High Speed Rail Canada, who does make an appearance in Paulsen’s article, might also be a little too close to the subject matter. (See for yourself at highspeedrail.ca, where he has provided a visual feast of ultra-modern railway exotica to bring pleasure to both the casual trainspotter and the most discerning connoisseur.)
But none of what I have to say amounts to a hill of beans, since the sheer Eurosexiness of high-speed rail blinds its proponents to the mind-boggling cost. The whole idea of high-speed rail in Canada is so patently absurd that it will likely happen. And when it does, the only benefit I’ll accrue is the opportunity to take the grandkids down near the tracks, where they can wave happily at the future as it whizzes by and disappears into the infinite vacuum of logic from whence it came.
Daniel J. Christie
Port Hope, ON
Back in 1971, when I co-authored a major study of high-speed rail for the Canadian Transport Commission, I made the case for merely “higher”-speed trains rather than bullet service, since the latter would require a track system that could not be used by freight trains or intersected by grade crossings. Acquiring this exclusive right-of-way and building the necessary track structure and train control system would involve monumental capital investment and decades of environmental assessments, which make Paul Langan’s idea of a train rolling into Halifax after a twenty-four-hour trip from Vancouver preposterous. Improvements in the governance model for VIA Rail, along with judicious capital investment, could lead to substantial improvements in rail service in selected parts of the country, but the real question is one of priorities for government spending. Do we want bailouts of automobile manufacturers, more investment in health, education, and foreign aid, or high-speed rail for those living in the Quebec–Windsor and Calgary–Edmonton corridors?
Richard M. Soberman
Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
Give or Take
I enjoyed reading Rick Salutin’s “Extreme Giving” (June), but he missed a point in his quest for a different social order. Salutin points out that Guujaw, the leader of the Haida national council, whose job it is to negotiate with governments, is one of the drummers at the potlatch rather than one of the headdressed chiefs. He says that this shows “the difference between the political leadership [that Guujaw] provides and that of the chiefs, who represent continuity with tradition and the solidarity of the nation.” He then suggests that this is “a strange distinction for us.” In fact, there are many people in Canada like Guujaw—politicians at various levels of government who represent regional interests in parliaments or councils. And when we need ceremony and tradition, we have our chief, our head of state: the Queen and her representative, the Governor General. Perhaps what Salutin seeks is closer to home than he thinks.
Chris Turner’s “An Inconvenient Talk” (June) uses the decline in official reserves of coal as evidence of an imminent shortage of hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, he has misunderstood the concept of reserves. As I tell clients with a financial stake, a reserve is that amount which is economic to produce with current technology and at current prices. For instance, today there are billions of tons of coal in the ground, easily accessible. But since oil surpassed coal in usefulness 100 years ago (because it’s a more potent fuel, more easily handled, and more easily refined), no one’s willing to pay much for it, and thus reserves have decreased.
As for oil, price increases have made it worthwhile to go farther, drill deeper, and apply more science to find and produce more. It also accounts for why the oil age will be long over by the time we run out of oil. The more consumers have to pay at the gas station, the less they use. Look at the progress made in hybrid car markets over the past few years. Just as the great coal-fired steam locomotives of the past century gave way to oil-fired steam, which in turn gave way to diesel-electric power, so the internal combustion engine of today will be made obsolete by technology and innovations we can’t yet imagine. If consumers are demanding it, human ingenuity will develop it.
I saw the print edition of this article yesterday and noticed that the cover referred to me as “Alberta’s Prophet of Doom.” I thought this was a cheap, sensationalist version of what Chris Turner had to say about my analysis of the energy situation—maybe intended to sell more magazines, but what a disservice to my message. I am not a prophet of doom, but rather an objective analyst and observer, with more scientific background than any number of pundits out there. Your sensationalist take is an insult to my message and to my integrity.
Dave Hughes (online)
Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the IEA, was incorrectly referred to as “she” in “An Inconvenient Talk” (June). The Walrus deeply regrets the error.