MONTREAL — CANADA'S crowded airports may be saved by a fast train. The train that could do the job is the TGV, the fast French train that put the planes out of business when it started the Paris-to-Lyon run in the late 1970s. It travels at about 170 miles per hour.
Interest in high-speed travel in Canada's most-populous corridor comes at a time when the federal government is paring back its subsidy to Via Rail, the government-owned passenger railway. Private money would be needed for a new train.
``So far there have been no private bids,'' says M.J. Lapointe, an official with the Minister of Transport's office. ``The federal government wouldn't get involved in this $4 billion project, but the private sector and the two provincial governments might be interested.''
The problem in Canada is too many people and planes are trying to use the airports - especially in Toronto, where there are long delays because of a shortage of air traffic controllers and runways. Since Toronto is the largest hub for air traffic in Canada, delays in Toronto mean a backup across the country.
One solution being talked about is a fast train between Montreal and Toronto - Canada's two biggest cities - to take the strain off Toronto's airport. There are 45 flights a day each way between Montreal and Toronto, carrying an estimated 7,000 passengers one way.
Although there is a train between Montreal and Toronto, it isn't fast enough to compete with airplanes, especially for business travel. Traveling at a maximum speed of 95 m.p.h., the train takes four and a half hours to cover the 350 miles between the two cities. The plane takes an hour, but there is a travel time of at least half an hour to and from airports. And there are delays every day during peak periods. Downtown-to-downtown time by plane averages three to three and a half hours.
The Train `a Grand Vitesse (TGV), traveling at 170 m.p.h., could do it in two hours. But it would probably make the trip in two and a half because of two stops on the way, at Kingston and Ottawa. To make the loop from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal adds extra mileage, but it makes the trip more practical.
It is a profitable route now for aircraft, if not for trains. Air Canada makes 60 percent of its revenue from flights between those three cities. Private investors have been looking at the moneymaking possibilities with a fast train.
The most-likely candidate would be Bombardier Inc. of Montreal, a transportation giant that started off making snowmobiles and now owns an aircraft company and a rail manufacturing unit. It makes New York City subway cars and coaches for the present train that runs between Montreal and Toronto.
Officials at Bombardier would not comment on any bids for a high-speed rail service. But the company does own the North American rights to the TGV in a joint venture agreement with Alsthom of France, the company that designed and built the TGV.
``Only Bombardier has the financial backing and technical know-how to do this job,'' says Christopher Holloway, director of Transport 2000, a rail lobby group in Ottawa which is in favor of a high-speed rail service.
Another potential bidder is Lavalin Industries Inc., a Montreal-based engineering and manufacturing firm. Lavalin is working on a subway system for Bangkok. ``We are in the early stages of discussions with the government,'' said David Sanders of Lavalin in Montreal.
Perhaps the biggest problem - and expense - facing any potential builder of a high-speed rail service is building a line dedicated to that traffic alone. Right now, the passenger train shares tracks with freight trains.
In France, the TGV runs on its own separate line, surrounded by a high fence. There are no level crossings, so the train travels unimpeded without any worries of collision. Between Montreal and Toronto, there are more than 300 level crossings. And it is doubtful that the railways would give up freight lines for a passenger service.
The French train runs on electricity. Canada, despite a surplus of hydropower, runs its trains on oil, much of it imported. A high-speed train line would almost certainly be electrified.
The federal government is skeptical of the merits of rail passenger service. But it is considering this project - as long as it is almost entirely financed by private money.