Who’s been working on the railroad?



A former Conservative henchman once declared that Canada’s passenger rail line receives operating subsidies from the federal government thanks solely to the general public’s sentimental attachment to trains – or, rather, the idea of them.

During an interview with the Globe and Mail in 2012, ex-transport minister Chuck Strahl, opined that “train travel in Canada has this romantic notion that if we all rode the rails, all of our problems would disappear.”

To which I might rejoin, “Well, wouldn’t they?” 

Though I haven’t had much occasion recently to “ride the rails,” when in the past I have, I managed to settle the affairs of my own corner of the world with greater alacrity and confidence than I’ve ever managed to muster whilst whipping down a pot-hole-strewn highway or jetting through turbulence in the lower stratosphere.

There’s just something about a train ride that’s so comforting, so evocative of a more elegant, civilized time. Indeed, Mr. Strahl was right. All such sentimental journeys are, by nature, romantic. But what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

The blunt truth is that without some form of public support (both financial and material) passenger rail service in Canada would die a fast and furious death. The numbers just don’t add up to suit the neo-cons and free-market proselytizers among us. Predictably, every government cut to Via Rail since the early 1980s, has hastened that federal Crown corporation’s demise. In fact, if I had any faith in the proposition that governments actually know how to plan for the future I would swear that the gutting of the “national dream” was a deliberate, carefully executed plot.

Today, Via’s national, intercity service provides 497 trains a week in all provinces, except Newfoundland Labrador and Prince Edward Island, rolling over 12,500 kilometers of track. More than four million passengers a year avail themselves of the service, though most travel the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

That may sound like a robust business, but since 1981, federal subsidy cuts have have prompted the railroad to chop from the outside in. 

In 2012, the Canadian line between Toronto and Vancouver was reduced to two, from three, days a week. The Ocean line between Halifax and Montreal was hacked to three, from six days a week. Other service cutbacks in the Corridor line west of Toronto followed suit. 

With each cut, of course, comes a self-fulfilling prophesy: ridership actually falls which, in turn, justifies more reductions in service and frequency down the road. 

All of which makes the news of Via’s decision last week to spent $10 million fixing a stretch of track between Miramichi and Bathurst welcome, indeed, though Via CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano offered an overly circumspect explanation for the move:

“We took three months to look at our options with the rail line, meet the province, municipalities, look at the market opportunity, and convince ourselves that if we made the investment and re-tarted the service, that there would be a possibility for growth,” he said at the announcement. “I think three months to look at that is reasonable.”

Actually, it’s rather ominous, for what Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano is scrupulously avoiding, in his statement, is the fact that without this paltry investment, all passenger rail traffic from the Maritimes to Quebec would effectively cease. Thirty years ago, such a scenario would have been unthinkable in official circles. Today, well, not so much.

As for the financial patch, “it’s useful,” national transportation consultant Greg Gormick told this newspaper’s Cole Hobson recently. “It’s useful, but it doesn’t represent any big change in thinking, any admission that we have some problems with the rail passenger system. . .There has to be a plan to boost the ridership and improve the promotion of the train. That’s the crunch. I think there’s still a lot of things that need to be done before anyone knows which way they can turn on this.”

The fact remains that without some form of government support, the numbers for privately administered rail – especially along the lightly populated Halifax-Montreal corridor – will never add up.

Yet, trains are an integral part of our history, our psyche, and, despite their cost, they do provide an essential, environmentally efficacious, mode of transportation without which all Canadians are somehow diminished.


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