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MP sees Canada's future riding on the rails Add to ...

Dean Del Mastro is a big teddy bear of a guy, a very partisan Conservative MP from Peterborough, Ont., whose spaghetti, complete with baseball-sized meatballs, is legendary among Tories on Parliament Hill.

But there is more to the 40-year-old MP than pasta and politics - and that is his romance with the railway.

He can't help it.

His maternal grandfather worked for the Canadian National Railway, but it was his paternal grandfather, Arcangelo Del Mastro, who worked for nearly 50 years for the Canadian Pacific Railway, who really sparked the MP's passion.

Mr. Del Mastro brought that passion to Parliament Hill when he was first elected in 2006 and he's run with it ever since.

As a rookie MP, he managed to finagle a $150-million commitment in the 2008 budget for passenger rail service from his riding in Peterborough to Toronto. It helped that this line would go through Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's Whitby-Oshawa riding.

Not surprisingly, there was controversy at the time as to whether this route was really needed. Despite that, Mr. Del Mastro expects construction to be under way "in the coming months."

Since 2006, Mr. Del Mastro has chaired the All-Party Rail Caucus. Most recently, he was successful in having Nov. 7 permanently declared National Railway Day.

That came just in time.

Mr. Del Mastro is travelling to Craigellachie, B.C., on Sunday to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the so-called last spike.

He and Edmonton Tory MP James Rajotte were accompanying Jim Prentice. But the former environment minister's surprise announcement Thursday that he was leaving cabinet for Bay Street changed that.

Mr. Prentice is no longer going and so Mr. Del Mastro has been asked to represent the government. He is joining CP CEO Fred Green in driving in the ceremonial last spikes.

He gets chills just thinking about it.

Two years ago, Mr. Del Mastro took a train trip through the mountains from Edmonton to Vancouver, but he's never been to this community where the final spike was driven into the main line of the CPR, linking Eastern and Western Canada.

On Sunday, he will also be thinking about his late grandfather.

Arcangelo Del Mastro came to Canada in 1925 on "spec;" he was 19.

He made his way to Britt, Ont., where he landed a job repairing locomotives for the CPR. He married and he and his wife raised nine children - seven boys and two girls - in a one-room house.

In the mid-40s, Mr. Del Mastro's grandfather was badly injured. A cooling fan that he was repairing was accidentally switched on, severing his right leg below the knee. After a lengthy recuperation, he went back to CP.

"He was a pretty proud guy. CP stood by him," Mr. Del Mastro said.

In the early 50s, he moved his family to Toronto. There, he basically had to learn to read and write English to take a test to upgrade to a better job; he aced it.

And so for the next two decades, he worked at Union Station, on that prosthetic leg, fixing the trains.

"It was crazy. He had the biggest garden you ever saw. His lawn was immaculate and he cut it with a push mower. He was a bulldog."

He retired at age 67, not his choice, said Mr. Del Mastro, noting his grandfather would have worked forever but mandatory retirement forced him to leave.

In the end, he worked for 47 years for the CPR. He lived to be 97 and passed away in 2003.

Although Mr. Del Mastro loves the nostalgia surrounding the railway, he believes, too, in its future.

"I think there is a rail renaissance going on around the world," he said. "Ultimately, there is no more environmentally friendly way to move freight."

And that brings us to his next mission. The MP is now gearing up to take on the issue of double tractor trailers - or long combination vehicles - two 53-foot trailers hooked up to one tractor on Ontario's 400-series highways.

Recognizing this is primarily a provincial issue, Mr. Del Mastro, nevertheless, is planning a public awareness campaign - "Trains belong on Tracks."

The Ontario government launched a pilot project last year to allow these LCVs on the highways. The government has argued that these double trucks use less fuel and notes that in Western Canada and Quebec, where they are on the road, there have been no safety issues.

Mr. Del Mastro, however, has a different view.

"I'm not anti-truck but I have yet to meet a constituent that wants to share the road with them," he said. "We've got a mode of freight transit available that existed since the creation of the country."

Trains make more sense for the environment and for the health of the highways and driver safety, he said.

The weight of these double trucks, he believes, puts a lot of pressure on the roads as well as creating "new challenges for drivers."

"These are significantly bigger trucks, these are significantly bigger moving objects than just a regular truck," he said. "They are twice the size."

In his mind, of course, the answer is rail.

 

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