The train was once a romantic and luxurious mode of transport, with companies competing for passengers. But in the last century, cars and airplanes have highlighted an option that – with the right investment and infrastructure – could be a cheaper and greener alternative in Canada.
Via Rail’s route disruptions over the years, however, mean the investment has to be significant, says Anthony Perl, a professor at Simon Fraser University and a Via board member from 2008 to 2012.
As he points out, a train may not take you where you want to go now because of budget and route cuts. And Canada doesn’t have the high-speed trains — used across Europe and elsewhere — that have made the industry competitive elsewhere.
“Passenger rail is a cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly way to move people,” Perl said.
But “experience has ebbed and flowed”, with the golden age of train travel now close to 100 years in the rearview mirror, thanks to public investment shifting to highways and the airline industry.
The golden age of the train dynasty
There was a time when companies were competing to see who could offer the most captivating first class experience.
In 1906, the Globe and Mail described the Muskoka Express, which carried passengers from Toronto to the cottage north of the city, as “a flying palace.”
“You were seated very nicely straight away, with linens, flowers, people smiling and taking your order in English or French and generally showing you a good time,” said Harry Gow, a passenger train advocate. with Transport Action Canada.
Local train travel was also innovative. In the early 20th century, several companies ran passenger trains between Hamilton, Toronto and surrounding small towns — and much of the infrastructure was electric, said Ryan Katz-Rosene, a University of Ottawa professor who studies rail infrastructure. and climate change.
“If we had gone more in that direction, we would be living in an alternate universe where we could have decarbonized.”
The decline of the railway empire
But instead, governments invested in highways – and the automobile became the king of travel.
As a result, passenger numbers began to decline in the 1920s. In 1920, according to statistics published in the Globe and Mail at the time, about 51 million people rode trains in Canada. Within five years, 10 million fewer people traveled annually.
People loved the freedom that came with owning a vehicle. But it was cheap gasoline after World War II that cemented the demise of passenger rail, Gow said, because people believed the car was the cheapest way to travel.
“Maybe they forgot the overall cost, like insurance, oil maintenance, amortization of the loan you took out to buy the car,” Gow said. “But people didn’t count that. All they counted was the cost of gas, so they thought it was cheaper than the train.”
And the car had help. In 1946, the federal government created a special law to help build highways in the provinces.
However, small communities wanted passenger trains – and Via Rail was presented as the public solution.
Enter through the rail
The federal government established Via Rail as a Crown corporation in 1977.
Before long, both the Liberal and Conservative governments made cuts to the railway company. In 1989, federal transport minister Benoît Bouchard announced about $1 billion in Via cuts over five years, which translated into road cuts across the country.
And although some politicians supported the idea of rail service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sentiment was not widespread, said David Collenette, the Liberal transport minister from 1997 to 2003.
“You’ve had a mentality … to say, ‘Oh well, people are going to drive and people are going to fly. So you can shut down that service. You can shut down that road,'” he said. And unfortunately, we’re now playing catch up.”
Although Collenette pushed for Ottawa to invest hundreds of millions in Via during his tenure, he said it all went into maintenance and repairs — and nothing was done to improve services.
The 1995 privatization of CN Rail, once a Crown corporation, didn’t help either after it bought the trains and tracks, effectively creating a monopoly since Via must pay to use the rail line, Perl said.
It’s one reason why Via trains can be delayed – the company’s trains are sitting on the tracks waiting to be delivered to CN. And it shows: the corporation’s on-time performance was 72 percent in 2021.
Is there any hope for Canadian trains?
Shoshanna Saxe says passenger train service is a critical piece of infrastructure for Canada, but reviving it will take time and funding.
“Good train travel can transport many people over short and long distances quickly, affordably, comfortably, with very little pollution,” said Saxe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure.
But her future is by no means guaranteed, she said.
“You can always change directions, but it’s like changing a big ship — if there’s too much momentum in one direction, it’s difficult,” Saxe said. “We’re not going to build a European-quality train system in a year, but the only way to fix the problem is to start fixing it.”
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