The Ontario government is looking hard at London as it eyes a possible high-speed rail service.
Debated and studied for more than 30 years, high-speed rail in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor isn't a new idea.
But now there are signs the provincial and federal governments are taking the concept more seriously -- and London is in the mix, transportation observers say.
While such a system would cost billions of dollars to build and maintain, it could relieve highway congestion, help the environment and extend the reach of Ontario commuters.
"We are seeing some positive signs," Grant Hopcroft, the city's director of intergovernmental and community liaison, said yesterday. Hopcroft has been working with the province and believes the idea is getting serious attention.
"We know there have been concrete steps taken . . . there has been supportive talk around making this happen," he said.
Evidence is now landing in the mailboxes of some London drivers, with the province's Transportation Ministry sending out survey letters on high-speed rail to those who've recently used Hwy. 401.
"That is a concrete first step when it comes to planning," said Jeff Casello, associate professor in the school of planning and department of civil engineering at the University of Waterloo, who's written on the issue.
"They are capturing user perception to get a sense of who is travelling in the corridor for whom this service may be attractive," he said of the government.
High-speed rail in the London area was the subject of a recent conference organized by the London Economic Development Corp.
The Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario also looked at the issue in a transportation policy workshop last year.
"It is good news to me -- they are obviously doing research and likely to do more," Dianne Cunningham, director of the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at the business school, said of the ministry survey.
"This is the way of the future and we have not been efficient in how we provide transportation," she said.
Studies have placed the cost of a high-speed, Windsor-Quebec rail link anywhere from $18 billion to almost $30 billion.
Annual maintenance costs would also be high, since the track would have to be kept in meticulous condition, said Casello.
In Europe and Japan, high-speed rail has been used for years.
There've been some suggestions a Canadian system, which could take 10 years to build even if a decision was made now, would start small, in the Toronto-Montreal corridor, the Greater Toronto Area or Edmonton-to-Calgary, before expanding to smaller cities such as London and Windsor.
But the cost of repaving and rebuilding roads is also high. Hwy. 401 is under reconstruction from Woodstock to Kitchener-Waterloo and studies suggest it's at full capacity, needing another upgrade soon.
It costs $200,000 a km to repave a two-lane stretch of the 401.
To build a section of city road is about $5 million per km for four lanes, and the 401 -- which uses different asphalt and concrete -- is "much, much more expensive," said John Lucas, city manager of transportation planning and design.
The survey letter tells drivers: "We are conducting a traffic survey along the Windsor-Quebec corridor. We want to determine whether there is enough demand for high-speed rail along the corridor."
The questions centre around where drivers begin and end trips, number of passengers, driving costs and income levels.
The Ontario, Quebec and federal government are doing a $3-million study of high-speed rail from Windsor to Quebec, and will review studies done in the 1990s, said Hopcroft.
Several issues are converging to create a receptive environment for high-speed rail, including federal-provincial stimulus spending, environmental concerns that favour rail.
Norman De Bono is a Free Press reporter.