The Sunday Edition

A lament for the demise of rail travel in Canada - Michael's essay

What was once a national treasure has become a national disgrace.
Passenger train travel in Canada isn't what it used to be. (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
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This happened.

I returned from a Montreal literary event last week and as usual took the train. When it came to a stop at Toronto's Union Station, I prepared to get off. I was carrying a heavy bag over each shoulder. Going down the train steps, my left knee, already a weak point, buckled and I tumbled down the steps to the platform, landing on the bad knee. As I struggled to get up, I saw a Via Rail employee in front of me with a wheelchair. Now that's what I call customer service.

The wheelchair was for another passenger, sadly, but I like to think that the train conductor had called ahead to the station. "There's an old guy in Car 63 who's probably going to fall down the steps getting off. Better have a wheelchair standing by." 

The old guy in car 63 can remember when not too long ago, train travel in this country was one of its glories, a national treasure. Now it is a national disgrace. Once we decided that moving goods was more important than moving people, rail travel began its long, steady decline. Passenger trains became an expensive, inefficient afterthought. At the end of the Second World War, governments began to invest more in highways, in travel by car and in airlines. Slowly, they moved away from rail.

In 1967, the Centennial year, the country's two railway companies, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, tried to weasel out of carrying passengers. They wanted to carry only freight. The government agreed to cover 80 per cent of their losses if they continued some kind of passenger service. The railways turned around and let passenger service deteriorate to the point of driving riders away. It was their contribution to the Centennial Celebrations.

Ten years later, the Liberals led by Pierre Elliot Trudeau lifted an idea from the Americans, who had just opened a passenger rail service called Amtrak. His argument was that if a comfortable, affordable passenger rail service were introduced and controlled by the government, people would come.Sadly, it hasn't quite worked out that way. But it is not the fault of Via Rail.
Commuters leave a VIA Rail train at Union Station. ( Ian Willms/Getty Images)

In the first place, Via Rail doesn't own any tracks except for a small stretch between Chatham, Ontario, and Windsor. For the rest in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa triangle, Via has to rent from Canadian National. Its trains are often late. But again, it's not the fault of Via Rail. Its trains could go 160 kilometers an hour and easily make it on time, if Via didn't have to share track space with pokey freight trains doing half that speed.

Sometimes I have problems with Via Rail. For example, a few years ago on a trip from Ottawa, I somehow got myself locked in the bathroom. I yelled and kicked but nobody came. Finally my seat mate noticed I had been missing for quite awhile and alerted the conductor. It could have been my fault though. Years ago I got stuck in a revolving door for half an hour.

Traveling by train is one of the last sinews that connect us to our history. There is something magical and mystical sitting in a comfortable seat nonchalantly looking out the window at the miles of bumper to bumper car and truck traffic. I've ridden from Nova Scotia to British Columbia by train, even sat with the crew in the engine. The experience is bracing. It leaves you with time to think, to wonder and to be alone for a few hours, even though you're surrounded by people.

Via needs about $4 billion to upgrade the service. With recent revenue and ridership increases, it has a strong case. It would be money smartly spent. Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the government will give Via Rail's case every consideration. Minister Garneau lives in Montreal and works in Ottawa.

He takes the train to get to work.

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