Death of 10,000 Cuts


I was saddened to read in today’s Toronto Star that VIA, the Canadian ‘passenger’ rail service, is being cut again. So once again communities in southern Ontario will loose their rail service. I read the self-serving hand-wringing of the executives, that their dream of a profitable passenger service that is completely user-funded, just isn’t happening. So they just have to keep cutting and cutting — preserving their jobs to the last, of course. This was reinforced by the announcement recently that VIA has tripled its profits after allowing for the on-going government subsidy and is looking to further fine tune its profit model…

Over the years we have had many pleasant train experiences. From riding the Indiana and South Shore interurban from Chicago to South Bend. To the incredible JR Shinkansen, flying on the ground from Tokyo to Kyoto. And watching the sun set over the Rhine from a very comfortable DB compartment. In our experience, passenger rail is a wonderful experience — except Canada.

Several years ago my son was going to school in Thunder Bay. I was astonished to discover that to get there one either drove or flew, that all the communities along the lake shore have been cut off. Oh, one helpful guy at VIA allowed that one could get off at a whistle stop someplace out in the bush 100km north and west of Thunder Bay, but how to get closer he could not help me. No buses either.

Later on, we joined my wifes’ relatives in Vancouver, after a wonderful guided tour of the city from my oldest and his wife. Nice town, wish we could afford to live there… The plan was to take the VIA Canadian back to Toronto. And we did. Going through the Rockies was wonderful but when we got out to the Prairies things changed. The train was constantly being shunted to the side to allow long, slow freights to trundle past — usually on sidings that serviced a crumbling wreck of a former station.  And when the train was moving the condition of the roadbed was all too clear — shake, rattle and roll. By the time we got back to Toronto our semicircular canals were so frothed that it took almost a week before our balance normalized. Like being peas in a can — definitely shaken (but not stirred). Sleep was always a challenge under these conditions. Nice to read the VIA press about this trip but our experience was a bit different. I would not do it again – even if it was free.

Growing up in a big city I have always been a big believer in the power of public transportation in general and passenger rail specifically to reduce congestion and pollution. The economics of rail — the low cost, simple infrastructure (compared with air travel or highways) and the ease of going from city center to city center as demonstrated in the rest of the world, seemed clear. And as Canadian history shows, rail can be an effective means to bring people and goods to remote areas — tying a large and thinly populated country together.

But instead, VIA is following an opposite course. Service continually shrinks as more and more stations are abandoned. Ticket prices float in an inconceivable stratosphere where air travel now becomes a bargain, ignoring the hassles of security and just getting to and from the airport. There is nothing that we would love more than leave our car in Kingston and take the train into Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal. But with gas, parking and time on the road, driving is still faster and cheaper than taking the train. Be nice to sit in a comfortable seat, watch the Ontario landscape roll by, and arrive relaxed and refreshed for a day of sightseeing. Like we can do almost anyplace else in the world. But not here.

The one thing that really troubles me about this is that transportation is the glue that holds the country together.  After the canoe, Canada was built by the railroads — and there should be no mistake about the amount of subsidies poured into their construction. Highways are built by taxpayer dollars and maintained in the same way. The air system is also heavily funded by governments. So it is disengenious to expect passenger service to survive when cut off from the background funding that built it and sustains the other forms of transportation. But a car full of grain will complain a lot less if left stranded on a siding for a day or two — than a car full of passengers.

Recently I have been reading about the (many) ghost railways in Ontario — many were constructed to tap rapidly vanishing timber or mineral resources and folded when the supply ended. But others had more interesting demises. At one point Ontario had a huge network of electric light rail that linked communities together in a way folks in Toronto can only dream of today. Where I used to live in Toronto it was once possible to walk to the end of the block and get a train that ran to Guelph. Must have been nice, would have made my son’s life in University a tad less isolated. This network was destroyed by explicit Ontario government decisions forbidding municipalities from raising money for their rail service. Some were replaced by buses, many just vanished. Shipments of mail used to underwrite the costs of passenger service — until the federal government decided this was just too retro and cancelled the contracts en mass in favor of trucking it. Competing lobbyists? Really bad drug dreams? Who can tell? Look at Toronto now — worked well, didn’t it?

The real worry is what will happen over time to the widely dispersed communities? Rail is an effective link to remote locations, being cheaper to build track than to lay a decent highway. And enormously more fuel efficient. And over the last century there has been much practice in supporting remote locations with the train. And since bus lines have been allowed to drop rural service in several parts of the country — one is either well off enough to fly or drive to get anywhere. If you are poor, sick or infirmed — forget it. Live in the big city or die seems to be the message. A pity that large masses of people dependent on external services are more vulnerable than a dispersed, partially self-sufficient rural one.

The message appears to be that getting around is not for everyone — and that it no longer matters for one to be able to get someplace for economic reasons. Remote communities can be left to drift into oblivion while agencies wring their hands over how expensive it is to service them. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate — pursuing economies of scale that simply don’t exist with human institutions. It is a shame, really — but from the policies at many levels to dismantle the transportation network, ugly cracks are starting to show in the country as a whole. One more step in dismantling the country  — will it break into warring principalities? (Quebec seems to be going that way…) Or collapse and be absorbed by the giant to the south? Or are some folks dreaming of a resurgence in feudalism? After all, in the good old days (if you were a hereditary lord) the peasants were tied to the land so they HAD to work for you and support YOUR lifestyle…

Meanwhile, if I want to take a train, I will have to go someplace else… passenger service in Canada, unlike the rest of the world, is heading for the museum and the history books. The real pity is that the country is likely to follow.

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