My Canada, 77/150: The rail ties that bind

When I was a kid in school and we had to write an essay about our “favourite Canadian Hero”, I picked the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Apart from possibly demonstrating I had an advanced grasp of abstract thinking at a young age — it was rather weird, but not forbidden, to pick a thing rather than a person — it shows how, from childhood, I had a sense that Canada was built, literally and figuratively, along its rail corridors.

That childhood project of mine is long lost but its content is nicely summarized by the Canadian Encyclopedia s entry on Railway History: “The construction of transcontinental railways such as the Canadian Pacific Railway opened up settlement in the west, and played an important role in the expansion of Confederation … In fact, the building of the Intercolonial Railway was a condition written into the Constitution Act, 1867 … The CPR also had a profound effect on the settlement of the Prairie West, and new cities, from Winnipeg to Vancouver, were heavily dependent on the railway. Other western towns were strung out along the railway like beads on a string.”

My father grew up in Perth County in Ontario and, when he returned from service in the Second World War, he did what many young men from that part of the world did: he went to work for the railway. There was a huge steam locomotive repair shop in the county’s biggest community, Stratford, which was in its day the largest in North America; the official City of Stratford history says that, at its peak, the rail industry employed half of the workforce in that city.

It’s hard to grasp now just how much rail transport there was a century ago. One map of southern Ontario from 1875 available online through the provincial archives shows a dense web of rail tracks criss-crossing the province.

With the coming of cars and trucks in the 20th century, railways stopped being crucial for personal and business transportation, although rail still is part of an integrated coast-to-coast shipping system in Canada where container units arrive at Canada’s Pacific or Atlantic coast by ocean freighter and then load into the complex network of rail and highway transportation inland.

77 passenger train
VIA passenger car. Photo: Ted Balant

As a traveller today, I prefer the train to any other mode of transportation for short to medium distances. You aren’t dealing with crowded highways and angry drivers. The seats are larger than on planes or buses and, huge plus, you can get up and walk around. You often travel through interesting countryside, there’s no jiggle of motion that makes it nauseating to read (a problem I have in cars or buses), and normally you get on, and off, a train at the centre the city, rather than an airport at the edge of the urban development.

One drawback is price: Toronto-Montreal return regular fare can run you $450 if you do not book in advance or take advantage of an online discount, which can halve or even quarter the price.

I have never done the complete coast-to-coast train ride, or the picturesque trip through Canada’s Rocky Mountains. I’ve been on pieces of the national necklace at various times in my life: Halifax to Quebec City; Toronto to Montreal; Winnipeg to Toronto; and more times than I can count between the southern Ontario stops of Toronto, Kitchener, Stratford, London, and Windsor.

To combat congestion on our highways and to make inter-city travel easier to manage without cars, we should have more trains, more frequently, at prices the market will bear, particularly across what’s known as the “Quebec-Windsor” corridor stretching from Windsor, ON through to Quebec City, a strip also covered by Highway 401 and its Quebec cousin, Autoroute 20. There’s a dog-chasing-its-tail effect when train service is reduced: as fewer trains are available, fewer people think to rely on them, and passenger traffic declines further because trains are not frequent enough to be useful. The someday-promise of a high-speed passenger train from Windsor to Quebec seems no closer to reality than when first proposed, many years ago.

While there have been some modest restorations and schedule improvements in 2015 and 2016, these don’t make up for the cuts from earlier years since VIA Rail formed as a Crown Corporation in 1978 mandated to offer national passenger service. Smaller train stations in southern Ontario, for instance, have few personnel: tickets are issued by machines and stations are locked in the long periods between trains arriving and departing.

The Province of Ontario has increased its network of GO Trains, which bring commuters to Toronto, but, if your destination is elsewhere, your pickings are slim. The demographics are ripe for a train revival: one Metro Vancouver study showed the number of people ages 20 to 24 with drivers licences dropped from 70 per cent to 55 per cent between 2004 and 2015, and this trend is repeating throughout North America. Maybe, in the end, it will be I-don’t-drive hipsters who will finally get passenger train service back on track.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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