What Elon Musk and the Leap Manifesto could do for Canada

The scene looks idyllic but that diesel-guzzling train spews toxins as it winds through Banff National Park.

Sure, detractors denounce the Leap Manifesto as “naïve,” an “eco-communist” polemic from a “latte-swilling Toronto power couple” who would throw taxpayers’ money at job-killing causes. But in this era of the electrification of everything, why should it seem radical to propose linking Canadian communities with rail powered by renewable energy? The suggestion has been made before and proven elsewhere.

A subject of controversy within the New Democratic Party, Leap combines native rights and climate change into a rationale for sharing and caring collectivism. Electric rail comprises one item in a document big on exhortation and short on details. But the idea has long been taken for granted in other parts of the world, including arctic Scandinavia. Leap’s hardly the first to propose something similar for Canada.

Former Canadian Pacific executive Glen Fisher, described as an expert in railway capacity and electrification, pitched the idea at a 2008 Transport Canada EcoFreight Conference. Writing in the Montreal Gazette at the time, he extolled the environmental and financial advantages of electric rail.

“The CN and CP mainlines coast to coast, along with branches to Detroit and Sarnia, carry about 80% of the revenue tonnage and correspondingly consume 80% of the fuel,” Fisher stated. “On this basis, a realizable reduction in CO2 equivalent of 5.2 million tonnes could be achieved by electrifying 24,800 kilometres of freight mainline track. But that’s not all.”

Electric fuel would also cut air pollution from nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and particulate matter, he added. And electric trains would be an awful lot quieter, shushing locomotives by as much as 30 decibels, and eliminating idling noise and cooling fan noise. Gone too would be the risk of spills from fuel or lubricating oil.

“There would also be impressive cost savings,” Fisher continued. “At 2008 rates, electricity costs just 15% of what diesel costs for a typical electrified section of railway as outlined in many previous studies. Additionally, industrial electricity rates have risen over the last 20 years between 10% and 20% depending on the consumption amounts, while diesel fuel has increased 270% in the same period and is still rising even more.”

Canada has done it before, and not just with passenger traffic in the more populous southern climes. Between 1984 and 2000, B.C. Rail (since taken over by CN) hauled coal over a 130-kilometre electric rail line from Tumbler Ridge. At 55 degrees latitude, the Peace River town was one of Canada’s most northerly rail destinations.

The electrified route resulted from “12 years of worldwide searching, learning, testing, prototype installation and then 20 years’ experience of operating state-of-the-art electrification designed for the harsh Canadian environment,” Fisher stated.

What Elon Musk and the Leap Manifesto could do for Canada
Elon Musk presented Tesla’s Model 3 to a rapturous crowd.

Consider too an expanded grid bringing hydro-generated and other clean electricity to remote, diesel-dependent communities and resource projects (assuming Leap allows the latter). Consider the clean energy projects some of those communities could develop for the grid. Consider a huge green infrastructure project that shrinks Canada’s carbon footprint.

Of course there are costs to consider too.

In 2008 Fisher estimated about $7.5 billion to electrify 24,800 kilometres of single track. But he said railways “would save more than $1.4 billion annually in energy costs.”

The Leap Manifesto doesn’t say who should pay for electric rail. Conceivably Leapsters might believe government should fund inter-city passenger traffic until a proper socialization of private freight carriers can take place. “But the money we need to pay for this great transformation is available—we just need the right policies to release it,” according to the document.

By “policies,” the manifesto mostly means taxes. Leap calls for “an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Financial transaction taxes. Increased resource royalties. Higher income taxes on corporations and wealthy people. A progressive carbon tax. Cuts to military spending.”

All fine and dandy, but what’s the likelihood of such a scenario? For starters, many NDPers oppose Leap. Additionally, the party’s most recent election performance placed the NDP as far from federal power as ever.

Successive Conservative and Liberal governments, however, have their own ideas about redistributing other people’s money. Train manufacturer Bombardier remains one of their favourite beneficiaries of corporate welfare (a term popularized by David Lewis, grandfather of Leap co-author Avis Lewis). So why can’t Ottawa support an immense, nationwide green infrastructure program that benefits the environment and local economies as well as a politically-connected Quebec corporation?

Maybe NDP ideologues just aren’t the right pitchmen. If only the cause could be taken up by someone charismatic, someone of genius, someone who makes visionary ideas at least seem viable. And especially someone who can get crowds swooning over green technology.

Unfortunately he’s probably busy enough with electric cars, energy storage, the Gigafactory and rocket ships. 

Related reading: What might airships do for Ontario’s Ring of Fire?

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