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Starts & Stops

Canadian officials want to be aboard if high-speed rail takes off in Northeast

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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Raymond Chrétien, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States, was in town recently, touting Quebec’s interest in high-speed rail and promoting the benefits of a connection between some future high-speed rail network in the United States and a similar line in Canada, via Montreal.

Chrétien met with Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan and Mullan’s counterparts from the other five New England states and New York on Sept. 30, capping a flurry of goings-on in the realm of intercity passenger rail that flew under the radar — or rumbled by, if you will — amid the attention on the Safe Driving Act.

First, Mullan went to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural meeting of the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission. If the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, it’s promising news nonetheless for anyone who has ever ridden Amtrak along the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor and found the experience lacking.

The case for fast, efficiently operated intercity trains has been hampered over the past few decades by the complex network of federal and state government organizations and quasi-public transit authorities that have oversight and private freight companies that operate along the route.

Now, all of the interests are coming together to take stock of their considerable infrastructure needs and to talk about regional planning, cost sharing, and other issues along the way to making local and city-to-city service faster, more frequent, and more efficient.

“There’s a very large number of people focusing on these issues in a real, serious way, and I think that’s a really good thing,’’ said Mullan.

It would cost $50 billion or so to complete all of the infrastructure projects envisioned to relieve congested lines, repair aging bridges and tracks, and make other substantial improvements. But some officials want to do more than enhance the existing system.

The day after the Washington meeting, a coterie of officials gathered in Philadelphia, where Amtrak unveiled a more expensive and more complex longer-term vision for building a parallel high-speed rail line in the Boston-Washington corridor. It would have projected sustained speeds of 220 miles an hour. Amtrak envisions the Boston-to-New York run taking just 1 hour and 24 minutes, as opposed to the 3 hours and 35 minutes that its Acela trains currently take on their best days.

The project would take 25 years to build and cost an estimated $117 billion.

Amtrak says the line would revolutionize travel in the Northeast — where 6 percent of trips 75 miles or longer are now done by rail, compared with 5 percent by plane and 89 percent by car — and would be so popular that it would more than pay for itself over time. It would also put tens of thousands of laborers to work.

The catch? There is no funding in place yet, and the planning and permitting would be immensely complicated. But the benefits to commerce and the environment are too great to let the opportunity slip away, Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania told reporters at the event. “Can we afford it?’’ he said. “We can’t afford not to do it.’’

Amtrak’s long-term vision dovetails with President Obama’s interest in high-speed rail as a 21st-century answer to the Eisenhower-era interstate system. Obama touched on the subject in his last State of the Union address and released $8 billion in federal stimulus dollars for rail that same month. Part of those stimulus funds provided a down payment on true high-speed rail lines and part funded not-quite-as-fast-but-shovel-ready connections between cities, including a rerouting of Amtrak’s Vermonter line (New York City to St. Albans, Vt.) over a faster, more direct route through Western Massachusetts.

Enter Canada, or at least Quebec: Officials there see momentum building for high-speed rail here and want to promote cross-border collaboration. Chrétien — Canadian ambassador to the United States for much of the 1990s, and nephew of former prime minister Jean Chrétien — was recently named the province’s emissary to promote rail in the United States.

“There is a strong commitment by the premier of Quebec, [Jean] Charest, to make sure that any new great infrastructure project in the northeastern part of the USA includes, as well, Montreal, and eventually linking to Ontario down the road, so that’s why I’m here,’’ Chrétien said, in an interview at the Quebec government office high above Downtown Crossing. “We’re not going to see the first fast trains between Boston and Montreal tomorrow, but you have to start somewhere, and we might as well start right now.’’

Chrétien arrived with a sheaf of maps showing potential rail lines and touting the economic clout of the Quebec-New England-New York-Washington “megaregion,’’ as well as the benefits of high-speed rail for reducing carbon emissions, alleviating highway congestion, and linking cities.

He was welcomed by the New England transportation secretaries and commissioners, who have been meeting quarterly since last year to talk about route selection, project timing, and other high-speed rail details; to swap ideas; and to discuss projects that are nearer on the horizon, like South Station expansion, Mullan said.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of excitement around it,’’ Mullan said.

Chrétien said part of the work is to excite the public and generate interest in high-speed rail in both countries.

“You will see, in your lifetime, fast trains,’’ he said. “I will see them as well. I’m confident. But I will not tell you my age.’’

Commuter train system gets a new general manager
The commuter rail has a new general manager. On Thursday, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., the private company that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail under contract, named Hugh J. Kiley Jr. general manager.

He replaces acting general manager Donald L. Saunders, a former Amtrak executive who is chief operating officer of Chicago-based Veolia Transportation, one of the partners in the MBCR.

Kiley most recently served as assistant vice president/operations for Norfolk Southern Corp., one of the country’s largest freight railroad companies, where he oversaw major infrastructure and service improvement projects. He previously worked for Conrail.

A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Kiley began his railroad career at Boston’s South Station in 1970 as a brakeman.

“Hugh brings 40 years of railroad experience to MBCR and has coordinated service delivery at all levels of the industry, including commuter and intercity passenger service,’’ James O’Leary, chairman of the MBCR’s board, said in a statement.

MBCR’s last noninterim general manager, of course, was Richard A. Davey, who in March was picked by the Patrick administration to lead the MBTA and to serve as statewide rail and transit administrator.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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