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Planes, trains and urban insanity

Building downtown airports and refusing to consider the train are a perfect way to bungle urban transport, LISA ROCHON writes

Thursday, December 5, 2002 — Globe and Mail, Print Edition, Page R4

One of the great pleasures of the telephone interview — in which a journalist encourages well-regarded experts to express an opinion — is the civilized way in which badly needed information is solicited and provided.

There is a polite greeting, an explanation of the purpose of the call and ordinary pleasantries such as “thank you” and “goodbye” once the information has been delivered. All of this seems quaint and old-fashioned when compared with the unhinged level of discourse on exhibit at Toronto City Council. Even in the case of fierce disagreements, you would have to be cracking mad to yell “You are a bastard!” over the phone line, as Mayor Mel Lastman did to Councillor Howard Moscoe at city council last week because of Moscoe’s criticism of the plan to expand the Toronto Island airport.

Madhouses have always been linked to terrible sounds — the gnashing of teeth and pounding of heads upon stone walls, but also the wailing of voices that nobody hears. When words are lost in the violence of a place, logic doesn’t have a chance. But insanity does.

Insanity lords over Toronto in the 21st century — while the polemic over how to better move masses of people is resounding right across the country. Here’s how (with thanks to the experts and their dispassionate displays of knowledge): We’re creating La Guardia north.

A $300-million rail link that speeds passengers from Union Station to Lester B. Pearson Toronto International Airport in 18 minutes received approvals about two years ago. Pearson, you’ll recall, is Canada’s busiest airport, currently undergoing a massive redevelopment to accommodate 50-million users each year, about double its current number of passengers. You’d think that would represent enough plane time to satisfy most. But there’s a particular kind of convenience demanded by the elites.

“Toronto is creating its La Guardia north,” says Dr. Anthony Perl, a Canadian educated at Harvard University and the University of Toronto who recently became the founding director of the Aviation Institute at City University New York. La Guardia Airport is located in Queens, New York City’s largest borough with a population of almost two million. On a good day, La Guardia is about a 15-minute drive away from the downtown. “La Guardia is where the superstars and titans of corporate industry fly into in their private jets,” Perl says. “It’s also where a lot of people are kept awake at night.” In the end, we get a redeveloped airport that approaches the size of London’s Heathrow as well as another that buries the dream of an inspired waterfront for people in Toronto. We’re stuck on planes and cars.

In North America, planes and cars monopolize intercity travel: the dirty movers of people. Less than 1 per cent travel by rail. Meanwhile, high-speed trains have burst onto the market in Japan, Europe and Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark. Air France no longer flies between Paris and Brussels but politely provides passengers with high-speed train tickets. At 300 kilometres an hour, the Train ` Grande Vitesse (TGV) can cover the same distance in about the same time, but with zero emissions. Since it was inaugurated in 1981 by Socialist Prime Minister Frangois Mitterrand, the TGV has pushed its intercity lines into Germany, Switzerland and Italy. We need to get stuck on high-speed trains.

Advocates of regional jets say Canada is too big and snowy for high-speed trains. Wrong on both counts. “We have a big country,” Perl says, “but we have large numbers of people living in close proximity to each other.” As for snow, look at Sweden, where high-speed trains in snowy climes have operated for about 15 years. And, if you want to give a boost to Bombardier, give it the contract — it has built many of the remarkable high-speed trains in Europe. Turbo-props today, regional jets tomorrow.

A high-speed train does what the turbo-prop plane manages in the air — without the worrisome emissions. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the turbo-prop. In fact, the Q-400 turbo prop by Bombardier is an excellent machine, sources tell me.

But why would Robert Deluce, the man behind Regional Airlines Holdings Inc., bank on an aircraft that the rest of North America has rejected? Two reasons: Bombardier is selling their turbo-props off cheap. And because, once he has invested about $550-million in building the fixed link, the island terminal and assembling his fleet, Deluce will want to expand his profit margins. Analysts predict he’ll upgrade to a fleet of faster regional jets with greater emissions. The city might point to the fine print in the deal. But, face it, Deluce will be calling the shots by then. The wish of Mayor Lastman may never be heard — no matter how loud he shouts.

Canada is the only G7 country without a national transit-investment program. That piece of embarrassing news provoked the federal government to assign MP Judy Sgro (York West) the task of writing an ambitious Urban Strategy for Canada. The recently released report outlines a clear mandate for a National Transit/Transportation Program. As well, Sgro asserts that, “Our roads are congested, air quality is deteriorating and low-density sprawl is encroaching on the countryside.” If Sgro and Federal Transport Minister David Collenette have their way, Toronto’s city-centre airport will die a quick death on the drawing boards and high-speed trains would be used to better connect Canadians.

What would it take to kick-start a high-speed train service in Canada? About $8-billion in investment from the federal government. “There’s an opportunity right now [to push for high-speed trains],” says David Jeanes, an Ottawa-based engineer and president of the public-interest group Transport 2000 Canada. “Via [Rail]’s ridership is going up and because of post-9/11, there are people who are happier to travel by train than to fly. There is also a perception that switching to rail makes it a lot easier for us to meet our Kyoto objectives.” We could revolutionize the way we travel in Canada but “God damn the CPR.”

The railway united this vast country of ours. But the privately owned railways such as Canadian National and Canadian Pacific are reluctant to make way for new technologies. Given that they own most of the rail lands in the country, this is a major problem. “Railroads still behave as if they are a monopoly,” Perl says. They could make it possible to travel from Edmonton to Calgary in two hours, and maybe Canada’s high-speed trains could serve the beautifully boxed lunches that you can buy on Japan’s Shinkansen fast trains.

In his book New Departures (2002), Perl examines the world’s high-speed train services and concludes that the culture at CN and CP would have to change dramatically to allow for new beginnings in rail.

Via Rail is the passenger service, decently and innovatively managed, but it owns little rail.

Between Calgary and Edmonton, for instance, CPR has an underused freight-train track, Perl says, but it’s reluctant to accommodate passenger trains except on its own terms. If Toronto’s city-centre airport goes ahead, get out from under the flight path.

That downtown airports cause noise and air pollution for residents is a no-brainer. We still know this, even though Toronto Deputy Mayor Case Ootes yelled “Shut up!” to Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sheela Basrur during last week’s explosive council session over the airport expansion. What new research indicates, however, is that the real damage to the environment occurs way up in the sky where planes fly.

Last week, the British Royal Commission on the Environment issued a paper titled Flying to a Warmer Climate in response to public concerns around whether Heathrow airport should build a fifth terminal.

“The aviation industry has put a lot of effort into the immediate concentrated impacts like noise,” Perl says. “What the British are saying is that aviation’s global environmental impacts are significant.”

Anybody interested in their children’s health or their own well-being will want to sell their waterfront properties — in the Beaches, Harbourfront and Etobicoke as well as communities beyond — or face physical consequences. “People who live under these flight paths have a whole host of physiological problems ranging from later speech development among infants,” Perl says, “to high blood pressure — given the startle response that happens even if you’re used to the noise.”

There’s pollution from aircraft emissions to contend with but also carbon-dioxide pollutants from the extra amounts of traffic that a greatly expanded airport in the downtown would generate. Think it’s hard to get around now? Imagine sharing new bottlenecks around the waterfront with trucks carrying aircraft parts and couriers, taxis, buses and cars all rushing to make the downtown plane. It all adds up to a cautionary tale in which Toronto becomes Buffalo.

“This is the 21st-century equivalent of the Spadina Expressway,” Perl says. “Toronto would have been a very different city if that had been built. It would have become a lot more like a Cleveland or Buffalo.” If the airport expands, life will go on, he muses from his university office in New York, “but the kind of life will be very different.”