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What we can learn about the future of rail from its past

The train used to be a romantic and luxurious mode of transportation, with companies competing for passengers. But in the last century, cars and airplanes have edged out an option that — with the right investment and infrastructure — could be a cheaper and greener alternative in Canada. 

Cuts to Via Rail routes over the years, however, mean that the investment would have to be significant, says Anthony Perl, a professor at Simon Fraser University and member of Via’s board from 2008 to 2012. 

As he points out, a train might not even get you where you want to go right now due to 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, more environmentally friendly way to move people,” Perl said.

But “the 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. 

what we can learn about the future of rail from its past
Professor Anthony Perl says passenger rail is a cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly way for people to travel. (Maryse Zeidler / CBC)

The golden age of the train dynasty

There was a time when companies were competing for who could provide the most glamorous first-class experience. 

In 1906, the Globe and Mail described the Muskoka Express, which took passengers from Toronto to cottage country north of the city, as “a flying palace.”

“You were ushered to a seat pretty well immediately, with linen, with flowers, with 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. 

what we can learn about the future of rail from its past 1
The train station in Kensington, P.E.I., was busy in 1914 — it’s now a pub. Budget cuts to rail travel translated to fewer routes and, subsequently, fewer passengers. (John Woodruff/Library and Archives Canada)

Local train travel was innovative, too. At the start of the 20th century, several companies ran commuter trains between Hamilton, Toronto and the 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 just gone more in that direction, we would be living in an alternate universe where we feasibly could have decarbonized.”

The fall of the railroad empire

But instead, governments invested in highways — and the automobile became king of the commute. 

As a result, passenger numbers started to plummet in the 1920s. In 1920, according to statistics published in the Globe and Mail at the time, about 51 million people took trains in Canada. Within five years, 10 million fewer people were riding annually.

People loved the freedom that came with owning a vehicle. But it was cheap gasoline following the Second World War that cemented the demise of passenger rail, Gow said, because people believed the car was the cheaper way to travel.

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Via Rail’s Skeena train travels through the Rockies between Jasper, Alta., and Prince Rupert, B.C. Academics suggest the investment in rail would pay off for the environment and as an affordable type of public transit. (The Canadian Press)

“Maybe they forgot the overall cost, like insurance, oil maintenance, amortization of the loan that 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 provinces.

Still, small communities wanted passenger trains — and Via Rail was introduced as the public solution. 

Enter Via Rail

The federal government established Via Rail as a Crown corporation in 1977. 

Before long, both Liberal and Conservative governments made cuts to the rail company. In 1989, federal Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard announced roughly $1 billion in cuts to Via over five years, which translated into route cuts across the country. 

And although some politicians supported the idea of rail service in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the sentiment wasn’t widespread, said David Collenette, the Liberal transportation minister from 1997 to 2003.

“You’ve had a mindset … to say, ‘Oh well, people will drive and people will fly. So you can close that service. You can close that route,'” he said. “And unfortunately, we are now playing catch up.”

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Via Rail Canada currently provides the only passenger rail transportation in southwestern Ontario. (CBC)

Though Collenette pushed for Ottawa to invest hundreds of millions into Via over his tenure, he said it all went to maintenance and repairs — and nothing was done to improve services.

The privatization in 1995 of CN Rail, formerly a Crown corporation, didn’t help either as it acquired both trains and tracks, effectively creating a monopoly since Via has to pay to use the rail line, Perl said.

It’s one reason why Via trains can be late — the company’s trains are sitting on the tracks waiting to yield to CN’s. And it shows: the corporation’s on-time performance was 72 per cent in 2021. 

Is there any hope for Canadian trains?

Shoshanna Saxe says passenger train service is a critical piece of infrastructure for Canada, but its revival will require time and funding. 

“Good train travel can carry lots of people near and far distances quickly, affordably, in comfort, with very little pollution,” said Saxe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure. 

But its future is far from guaranteed, she said.

“You can always change directions, but it’s like changing a big ship — if it’s a lot of momentum in one direction, it’s hard,” said Saxe. “We’re not going to build a European-quality train system in one year, but the only way to fix the problem is to start fixing it.”

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