Whither, or wither, Canada’s National Dream?

You won’t find the date marked on any calendar, but November 7 is, officially, Canada’s National Railway Day, which is either a meaningless designation or a cruel joke, depending on your perspective.

Transport Action Atlantic’s point of view is clear enough, and its members are not at all amused. “Three years ago the Government of Canada declared. . .National Railway Day. . .to commemorate annually the driving of the last spike in the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) – often called ‘the wedding band of Confederation,’” a media advisory from the group declares. “That historic event came nearly a decade after the Maritimes were joined to Central Canada by completion of the Intercolonial Railway (ICR), which linked Halifax with the existing Grand Trunk Railway in Quebec.”

One-hundred-and-twenty-six years later, the national rail network is troubled; a victim of institutional negligence, short-sighted policy and managerial malaise.

Or, as Transport Action Atlantic opines, “In recent months, Canada has experienced the tragedy of the Lac-Mégantic derailment, several other serious rail accidents, severe cuts to the nationwide VIA Rail passenger service, the threatened severing of the ICR along New Brunswick’s North Shore, a hostile takeover of the CPR by a corporate raider, and the dismantling of 200 miles of the CPR’s transcontinental main line in eastern Ontario.  Once the pride of the nation, our rail system is in turmoil.”

Naturally, you won’t read a syllable of this on Transport Canada’s website. The most recent item regarding National Railway Day, posted precisely two years ago, quoted Denis Lebel, then-minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. “The rail industry contributes enormously to our economy by moving people and goods across vast distances,” he said. “Canada’s rail network is part of a legacy going back to that historic last spike and one that helps unite Canadians. The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of maintaining a rail system that is safe, efficient and stands as an example to the world.”

It’s comments such as these that makes you wonder whether the centre of power in Ottawa (AKA the Prime Minister’s Office) churns out cheerful tropes for any and all occasions, regardless of their veracity, much like a greeting card company. Canada’s rail system is many things, but an example to the world is not one of them.

Once upon a time it was, and it still ranks as the fifth largest, integrated network of its kind in the world (behind India’s, Russia’s, China’s and the United States’s). But these, and other, countries are making the investments necessary to both maintain and expand their rail infrastructure. According to Transport Action Atlantic, the reasons are sensible: “Every other G8 nation. . .(is) investing heavily in their railways to tap the vast economic, social and environmental benefits of moving people and goods with steel wheels rolling swiftly and safely on steel rails.”

This includes the United Kingdom, where Network Rail has announced a $63-billion (CAN) scheme to expand British passenger service by more than 170,000 commuter seats next year to accommodate an expected increase in riders of 225 million by 2019. Meanwhile, some industry reports indicate that spending on new rail engineering projects in the UK is poised to jump thanks, in part, to a $54-billion high-speed project and a $25-billion crossrail system.

The Middle Kingdom, too, is lurching ahead of the curve Canada once lead.

“Fixed asset investment in China’s railways rose 25.7 percent year-on-year to 37.63 billion yuan ($6 billion US) in the first two months of the year (2013), the railways authority said,” Chinadaily.com reported earlier this year. “The investment is a part of the ministry’s 650 billion yuan fixed-asset investment package this year, slightly higher than last year’s 631 billion yuan.”

These nations know something we have forgotten: Moving people and goods (apart from oil) by rail is still the safest and most efficient method to cover vast distances

“The time has come to ponder the consequences of Canada’s failure to do the same,” Transport Atlantic points out. “Where does this leave Canada in an increasingly competitive world?”

It’s a good question. Are we only now facing our last spike?

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