The180·The 180

The most passionate case you'll hear for train travel in Canada

Passenger rail has not been a priority for private enterprise or government in this country for a long time. Jason Shron wants all that to change. He's always loved trains, and this week he shares that love and makes the case for better train travel for everyone.
A passenger hops off a train in Sept-Îles, QC. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

For many Canadians, travelling by train is not so much a choice about how to get from A to B as it is an exercise in nostalgia. Passenger rail has not been a priority for private enterprise or government in this country for a long time, and over the past 15 years, the British government has outspent the Canadian government on rail service by more than 140 billion dollars. 

Jason Shron wants all that to change. He's had a lifelong love affair with trains, and is now the president of Rapido Trains Inc., a model train company based in Ontario. Shron is calling on the new federal government to reinvest in train travel. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

Why do you think Canada needs to invest in intercity passenger rail service? 

Well, basically, we need to catch up with the rest of the developed world and much of the developing world. Most governments around the world are recognizing that when traveling short to medium distances, passenger trains are the smartest way to travel. They are a sensible investment in terms of preserving the environment, in terms of fuel economy, safety, security, unclogging the roads, unclogging the airports — so it really makes sense and we're seriously, seriously lagging behind... At a time when the rest of the world is expanding its passenger rail network, ours seems to be shrinking, and it requires a real commitment of government funding in order to bring our passenger train service into the 21st century. Right now, we think of roads as an investment. Roads are not expected to pay for themselves. We invest our taxpayer dollars into roads. But when we talk about Via Rail, we talk about a subsidy. And once you start talking about subsidy versus investment, there's tremendous rhetorical baggage that comes with the word subsidy. And that immediately gets the back up of a lot of people, who say, "I don't want to subsidize this, I don't take the train!" Well, you know, maybe you don't drive on that highway that's 800 miles from your house, but you're paying for it. 

But Jason, this isn't Belgium — this is a big country. Could train travel realistically become a major mode of transportation in Canada?

I think it can. I think you have to take a multi-faceted approach. Approach number one - you've got these city corridors that need serious investment. Edmonton and Calgary - the last passenger train between Edmonton and Calgary was September 1985. It's been over 30 years since the last passenger train between these two cities, they're 300 kilometres apart, they've got two million people between them. It makes perfect sense to have half-hourly fast Via train services between these two cities. I'm not saying invest crazy money on a high-speed service going through the prairies. It doesn't make sense, we don't have enough people. But if you have a solid spine — or a double spine, a northern route and a southern route through western Canada — and then you have all these hubs, wheel and spoke systems around them, with these busy, fast services, we could create a really connected rail service in Canada. 

Canadians I know right now are thinking, why does this guy love trains so much? Tell us what ignited this passion. 

Well, I've been obsessed with trains since I was two years old. I was born in Montreal, moved to Toronto, and I discovered the Turbo, which was CN's, and later Via's, attempt at a fast train between Toronto and Montreal. It was wonderful — it was like half train, half airplane — I absolutely fell in love with it. When it was retired when I was seven years old, I actually cried for a week. My parents thought, 'this kid's crazy', but they figured that I'd outgrow it. And I didn't. So I actually abandoned a PhD I was doing in art history in England to start a model train company, and that's what I do. I manufacture model trains, and I live and breathe trains. I've actually got a full-size VIA train in my basement that I built, because that shows you how nuts I am. But my goal is really to spend every chance I get, every opportunity, to convince the rest of Canada to get on board as well. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

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