Rail debate returns to Halifax

Budd Car

Budd Car Interior after refurbishment

I had an opportunity to talk to Tim Outhit, councilor for Bedford, for an hour or so last week. The conversation was wide ranging, covering topics from passenger rail to community councils to taxes.

What was most exciting was the discussion around rail service in HRM, or even to Truro some day.

Now I know that some city staff have historically been pretty against any rail proposal, though to be fair, I think the discussion of rail back in the 1990s was premature. HRM had just been put together, there was a lot of work to do to normalize by-laws, taxes, services, work that admittedly continues to this day.

Rail can be really expensive. What is expensive is new rails, new switches, new sidings, new train stations. Rail is rolling stock, right of way, and an endless loop of federal and provincial safety approvals and reviews. Rail is a big fixed cost that is also costly to operate and cannot be rerouted.

Rail is also efficient, low on emissions, and sexy as hell. It is attractive for reasons beyond simple logic. As a kid who’s Dad was periodically posted to Toronto, I remember that living there we felt buses were slow and dirty but workable, trolleys were better than buses (even though they were subject to the same traffic delays) and the subway, oh the subway, you were riding high if you were on the subway.

I have spent a lot of time reviewing rail options, looking into North American and European solutions, looking into urban versus regional rail. The cost we have been quoted, that I have often quoted, was $400-800 million for rail to Bedford. This cost is just too high to be viable.

Back in the early 1990s I went to a Transport 2000 presentation at Halifax City Hall, where they enthusiastically talked about running six refurbished BUDD rail cars in from Bedford in the morning, six out at night. This solution cost just $25 million. $5 a ticket was too high back then, but it is something people are paying now for MetroX. I still think Halifax to Bedford needs to be, at most, $3.00, but the fast ferry would be more.

In future posts I will talk about options, but today, lets focus on this: we are seriously exploring rail again.

Will city staff hire appropriate consultants with experience running passenger rail on freight lines? Will they study what needs to be done to existing track to make it safe fast and efficient, or will we again study an “as is” situation with the switches and signals unchanged? Will we look at all the reasonable cost options?

I hope we get an honest look at the costs and options. Tim Outhit was proposing the very base model, and building it as demand grows. I like that idea, but at the same time, we still need decent stations, decent upgrades. We should explore other models of diesel powered trains as well, maybe we can spend the extra $10 million and get new Stadler or Bombardier trains.

Somewhere between $25 million and $800 million is a sweet spot, between extravagant and too modest, where we could establish a rail system we can afford to own and operate.

Then it gets really exciting – lets say “in ten years, we will have rail, and here is where the stations will be.” Establish a 5-15 year development plan that leads to rail, so we start putting the bus terminals, ferry terminals, road improvements, zoning, building permits, in place. Project forward 10-15 years so that the real estate market and the developers can start planning for the rail, start approving medium and high density near the rail.

Actual serious planning for a $25-$125-$200 million dollar plan can start now, and we could have a 25 year plan for mass transit. Call this part the “transit infrastructure backbone” or something more marketable, and suddenly, HRM has some serious, public, and long term planning underway. Its actually in the cards, lets see what it could look like.

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