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Why Canada is so far behind Europe in electrifying rail

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at why Europe is so far ahead of Canada in electrifying trains and the problem of sunscreen in our waterways.

Also: The dark side of sunscreen

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • Why Canada is so far behind Europe in electrifying rail
  • Sunscreen: Protecting humans at the expense of marine life
  • This First Nation in Manitoba was swindled out of its land — and into a flood zone

Why Canada is so far behind Europe in electrifying rail

(Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Electric trains are widespread in Europe — yet here in Canada, most trains are diesel or diesel-electric, with the exception of some public transit lines in major cities.

A 2020 report by the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) found that Canada's adoption and implementation of electric and hydrogen rail is "slower than most developed countries and some developing countries, such as Morocco and China."

About 60 per cent of Europe's rail network is electrified — double what it was in 1975, the study found.

"Europe moved to a zero-emissions agenda over 10 years ago," said Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC and co-author of the 2020 report.

Many rail lines in Europe have been electrified with overhead catenary wires, but other technologies have also been moving forward. For example, in 2018, the Coradia iLint hydrogen fuel cell train, made by French rail company Alstom, started commercial service in Germany, where dozens of units have been ordered by two states. The train has since been ordered by Italy and tested in Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and France.

So why is Canada so far behind on electrified rail?

Petrunic says there are several reasons: our large geography and low population density, as well as the fact that in Canada, about 80 per cent of rail traffic is freight.

In Europe, a small continent with a high population density, electrification is cheaper and 80 per cent of rail carries passengers. Petrunic suggested ticket revenues are high enough to offset the cost of electrification.

She said that in Canada, it makes more sense to look to freight to electrify. But given the size of the country and low population density, Europe's strategy of electrifying rail with overhead catenary wires wouldn't work here. 

"Imagine connecting a CP or a CN rail vehicle to the electrical grid across Canada through the Rocky Mountains," Petrunic said. "If we want expensive rail, that's the way to do it. That is extremely complicated."

Hydrogen isn't an easy solution, either, she said, given the lack of a developed hydrogen fuel supply chain and infrastructure. Then there's the fact that the rail network crosses into the U.S. 

"It's not enough to get the hydrogen deployed across Canada. It has to be across the NAFTA region," said Petrunic.

Gord Lovegrove, an associate professor of engineering at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, said another factor is there is no regulation in Canada requiring rail operators to achieve greenhouse gas targets or net-zero emissions by a certain date.

Even so, he and Petrunic say pressure is mounting from governments and shareholders, as are business costs such as the carbon tax and air pollution regulations. All of this is prompting railways to voluntarily electrify

CN has a project to test a battery-electric locomotive, while CP is working on developing a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive. Lovegrove is working with Southern Railway of B.C. on a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive project as well.

"Their bottom line is driving this change to decarbonize," Lovegrove said, even without the government requiring it. "It's happening. How fast it happens is really, to me, the only difference, regulated or not."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

James Cleland: 

"I read your article on 'yard gardens.' I grew up in southern Saskatchewan, which is semi-desert. I have lived in northwestern Ontario and now live in northwestern New Brunswick. The  soil and climate is very different across Canada. An activity like this needs to recognize and use the learnings of local farmers and gardeners. Transplanting techniques that worked in Ontario and Quebec to the dry Prairies was a disaster. It took many decades to learn how to farm without losing soil to wind and water."

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The Big Picture: Sunscreen and water

To enjoy sunny weather, we've been taught to apply a layer of protection to our skin. Thought to have been invented in the late 1920s or 1930s, sunscreen has been an essential outdoor accessory for the better part of a century as a way to avoid UV radiation, with manufacturers increasing the sun protection factor (SPF) along the way. While sunscreen has been crucial for humans managing potentially carcinogenic rays, it's proving less kind to creatures of the sea. 

It has been estimated that 20,000 tonnes of sunscreen wash off into the Mediterranean Ocean every year, while another 14,000 tonnes end up in coral reefs. This has a toxic effect. Sunscreen contains a variety of ultraviolet filters, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, which contribute to coral bleaching and endanger the development of certain species, like sea urchins. They also contain varieties of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, dubbed
"forever chemicals," which, owing to their seeming indestructibility, end up in other waterways.

While the research on the long-term ecological effects of sunscreen is still in an early phase, global warming is likely to only increase its use. It's hard to convince people to stop using a product that was expressly invented to keep them safe, but some regions with rich marine ecosystems have made an effort to staunch the flow of sunscreen into bodies of water. For example, in Mexico, people are asked to forsake sunscreen when swimming in natural pools.

  • Do you have a question about climate change and what is being done about it? Send an email to 
(Marianna Massey/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have provided more evidence of how vulnerable fossil fuels are to wild price swings because of economic and political factors. Some experts say the transition to clean energy won't just mitigate climate change, it will also "solve massive geopolitical problems, which have been just a plague for the last 100 years."

  • Two huge solar projects that bill themselves as record-breaking have started generating power in Europe: the continent's largest floating solar farm, in Portugal, and the world's largest solar carport, in the Netherlands.

  • A pilot project is launching in B.C. to reduce waste from single-use beverage cups. Customers at participating Tim Hortons, Starbucks, A&W Canada and McDonald's Canada restaurants will be able to get a reusable cup for a deposit and drop it off in bins around the city to be cleaned by recycling organization Return-It. The project will also offer recycling bins for single-use cups.

This First Nation in Manitoba was swindled out of its land — and into a flood zone

(Jaison Empson/CBC)

The current flooding on Peguis First Nation, believed to be the worst the community has ever seen, has displaced more than 1,800 people and ravaged hundreds of homes. 

Peguis, the largest First Nation community in Manitoba, has 3,521 members usually living on reserve and 6,504 off-reserve members.

It's no stranger to flooding — over the last few decades, residents have been chased from their homes several times by rising waters. But that wasn't always the case. 

A few generations ago, the community lived on prime farmland just north of Winnipeg, far from the flood-prone delta on the Fisher River about 160 kilometres north of the capital, where it is today.

In a way, the story of how they were pushed so far north into the Interlake region is the story of Manitoba, said Niigaan Sinclair, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.

"You can map Manitoba by the removals of Indigenous peoples. So the story of Peguis is unfortunately not abnormal," said Sinclair, who's also a member of the First Nation.

"It is particularly awful for [me] in that I witness my relatives every year having [a] massive amount of property damage, their livelihoods being consistently under duress and the fact that it's just impossible to make a way of life … in this territory that we've been forced to live upon."

At the turn of the 20th century, land just northeast of Winnipeg was known as the St. Peter's Reserve — a predecessor to today's Peguis First Nation. Today, the area is home to the city of Selkirk.

The people of St. Peter's were successful farmers, said Karen Froman, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg who teaches Indigenous history. But an idea persisted among settlers that First Nations were incapable of using the land properly.

"There was pressure and resentment on the part of the settler population to remove Indigenous peoples from productive, valuable land," said Froman, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River. "It's racism, pure and simple."

In 1907, government officials devised a scheme for the reserve land to be surrendered — though the people of St. Peter's "utterly opposed it," Froman said.

By all accounts, the vote on whether the First Nation would give up its land to the government "was pretty shadily done," she said. For one thing, it was held in September, when many members were away hunting, fishing and trapping, and was scheduled on short notice, Froman said.

The outcome was close: 107 in favour, 98 against. It wasn't a majority of the 233 eligible voters. But the government decided it had won the majority of the vote, though no record was kept of who was voting, Sinclair said.

"You cannot call that a vote. That was a sham," he said. "The land was stolen, period."

The St. Peter's Reserve was dissolved, and its people forced from the site where they'd been for generations to a new one selected by the government, Froman said.

What awaited the newly established Peguis First Nation — named after Chief Peguis, who had led a band of Saultaux people to establish a settlement at Netley Creek and later at St. Peter's — was a far cry from the thriving community they once knew, Froman said. There were no houses, no schools, no churches, or even any roads. 

"They took one hell of a backward step when they moved," said Bill Shead, whose great-grandfather, William Asham, was a former chief of St. Peter's who was at the meeting when the vote was held. It was "scrubland, poor land — sort of marshy and no real big trees."

Today, the community is still dealing with the aftermath of being relocated to such a flood-prone area, said Chief Glenn Hudson, repeating his call for long-term flood mitigation measures in the area.

"We deserve better, especially when our land was taken from us illegally," Hudson said. "People need to understand and know the history of how our lands have been swindled from us."

It's a sentiment shared by elder and Peguis First Nation member Ruth Christie — not just to make people aware of her community's history today, but to make sure its stories are preserved for tomorrow.

"The elders that knew these stories, they're passing away now," Christie said.

"If the young people aren't interested in the history of their people … that history will be lost."

Caitlyn Gowriluk

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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