This Wednesday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson will travel to Portland to speak at the Cascadia Rail Partnership Conference — a gathering of transport pundits, policy wonks and politicians focused on bringing high-speed rail to the corridor stretching between Vancouver and Eugene, Ore.

The group should be especially energized, thanks to last month’s funding announcement by U.S.
President Barack Obama — pledging $8 billion for high-speed rail along major population corridors, including the Pacific Northwest.

But frustrated Vancouverites stuck in airport queues or traffic jams en route to the U.S. West Coast would be wise not to envision themselves rocketing down the I-5 corridor in a Shinkansen bullet train just yet.

Here’s why.

While $8 billion seems like a considerable sum of money, it is merely a drop in the bucket — especially when our own government has committed nothing. High-speed rail is prohibitively expensive — and both Canada and the U.S. are, lamentably, several decades behind the key investments that have been made in Asia and Europe.

Recently, I spoke with a consultant to JR Railways Group, the firm that operates Japan’s famous high-speed rail lines. He argued that Obama’s money, divided over 10 projects, won’t go far at all for any kind of new high-speed rail developments. What it will do is improve upon existing rail routes.

So the prospect of a bullet train screaming into Pacific Central Station is still a pipe dream.

Of course, money is only part of this story. The other, perhaps more pivotal aspect, is that of government will and vision. Sadly, our federal leadership has none of either.

To date, judging by its silence on the matter, it seems Ottawa would rather have nothing to do with this undertaking. Even when federal politicians do mention high-speed rail — like Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has done of late — they tend to dwell on Ontario and Quebec.

British Columbia — surprise, surprise — is an afterthought.

Of course, the feds are still taking heat here — and rightfully so — for the embarrassing plight of the second Amtrak train connecting Vancouver to Seattle. The Canadian Border Services Agency is holding up the expansion of the slow-speed service by demanding $1,500 per day from the U.S. railway operator.

If government bureaucrats are willing to quibble over such a piddly amount, they will never be on board for the vision or the cost required for anything remotely more ambitious.