Canada draws line over cracks

An old answer to Quebec's separatism is to build a new railway, writes David Usborne
  • @dusborne
Quebec City - For any Canadian with a sense of history it is obvious. If francophone restlessness in Quebec threatens to tear the Confederation asunder, your best course of action is to build a railway line: tie Quebec more tightly to the rest of Canada with a band of steel.

The idea harks back to Sir John Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, who in 1870 persuaded a hesitant British Columbia to join the Confederation by promising to connect it to the other provinces with a railway running from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

It was a pledge that was accomplished by the hammering of the famous "Last Spike" by Sir John on 7 November 1875 at Craigellachie, in the heart of British Columbia. The completion of the railroad remains a powerful symbol of Canada's unity and identity.

Can Jean Chretien, Canada's current Prime Minister, pull off the same trick today, as he struggles to thwart secession by Quebec? He may have the chance, thanks to a controversial project to build a new high-speed railway from Quebec City, the capital of the province, to Windsor, Ontario, passing through the cities of Montreal, Ottowa and Toronto, a trip of 740 miles.

While the same journey can be made by train today on Canada's nationalised passenger rail service, it takes a considerable amount of time (as this correspondent can attest). The section between Montreal and Toronto alone takes four-and-a-half hours, though the carriages are comfortable, with service worthy of an aeroplane.

What is being proposed is a 180-mph service on new track, with the same technology used by the TGV high-speed trains in France. The travel times would be cut in half.

Bombardier, the Montreal-based aviation and transport giant, which owns the North American rights to the TGV technology, is beginning a four-month study into the viability of the line. The study was commissioned jointly by Mr Chretien and the Premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, in an unusual show of unity between two men more used to conflict than to co-operation.

Therein lies a tangle of conflicting political interests that would have made even Sir John Macdonald pause for thought. On the table is a mega- project which, according to a first study completed last year, would cost some C$18bn (pounds 9bn). Most of it would have to be funded by Ontario, Quebec and the federal government, although they are already burdened with huge budget deficits. And why would Quebec, which last year came within a half percentage point of approving secession, push for a new physical link to the heart of Canada?

Jean-Paul L'Allier, the pro-sovereignty Mayor of Quebec City, a train enthusiast who has ridden the TGV in France and the Japanese bullet train, insists there is no contradiction in Quebec's position. "Wanting to separate doesn't mean wanting to isolate ourselves," he explains. "It doesn't mean that we want to float away, like some kind of island and anchor ourselves somewhere else. I don't believe that separating means stopping communicating. We don't want to turn our backs on the rest of Canada".

The same logic drives Mr Bouchard, who wants to show an independent Quebec would still be a partner with the rest of Canada. Mr Bouchard has even been teasing Mr Chretien about his lukewarm support for the TGV. "If I was the federalist prime minister," he joked recently, "I would want to prove to everyone that federalism is good. I would want to recreate the conditions that existed at the birth of federalism - the great railway lines that united Canada."

None of these political cross-currents have escaped Bombardier, whose chief executive, Laurent Beaudouin, is an outspoken opponent of separation. Bombardier has hinted that it would prefer to limit the project, by linking only Montreal and Toronto, thus excluding Quebec City.

"That would be my inclination," Alain Paquet, a research director at Bombardier admits. "But I guess that, politically, it would makes sense to include Quebec City". Mr L'Allier agrees. "If Bombardier comes to us and says Quebec City is not included in the project, I think that the government will say, well, we are including it".

But there are more fundamental questions. Although the Quebec City-Windsor corridor contains two-thirds of Canada's population, critics doubt enough people would abandon their cars and the use of aeroplanes to ride the railway once more.

There are also questions about how realistic it is to expect such an enormous outlay of government spending. "Can the government pay for projects like this when it is closing hospitals and other services?" Mr Paquet asks. "It would be hard, politically, to invest in something which only the wealthier portion of the population would use."

But as engineers and politicians ponder the project's wisdom, nothing can be considered in isolation from Mr Bouchard's pledge to hold another referendum on separation after Quebec's next provincial elections. It is not clear how Mr Chretien will explain to taxpayers in western Canada, where there is not much patience with the separatists, that they must contribute to a scheme which is aimed principally at pleasing Quebec.

And consider this scene: it is 2007 and the train line has been built. But in the meantime Quebec has wrenched itself loose from the Confederation. What kind of "Last-Spike" ceremony would that produce?

Two spikes would probably be involved. On one side of the new international frontier would be a triumphant Mr Bouchard, poised with his sledgehammer. On the other, much more reluctantly, would stand the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Chretien. Or, more likely, the ex-Prime Minister.