Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.
If you love train travel, Germany is heaven. I’m living in Berlin for a year, and sometimes I go and sit in the Hauptbahnhof, the central station, just to marvel at the bustle and beauty of a well-run rail network. And maybe buy some chocolate.
More than 300,000 travellers pass under the Hauptbahnhof’s soaring roof every day, exiting or entering more than 1,000 trains. Yet the hoary joke suggesting German trains run on time isn’t all that accurate; only 75 per cent of inter-city trains arrive within six minutes of schedule. And the remaining quarter are a subject of national hand-wringing.
The trains themselves are marvels of comfort, speed, cleanliness and efficiency. I cannot help but compare the experience to travelling on Via Rail, which someone accurately but cruelly described to me as “junky.”
Riding a train in Canada can be a wondrous experience, as anyone who’s looked out the window and seen a deer or a mountain peak will know. But it can also be maddening: Will we be pulled over for 20 minutes so a freight train can pass? Will the bumpiness of the rails cause my coffee cup to actually levitate off my tray? Will I freeze in my seat, or boil like a lobster?
Canada’s passenger-rail network could be vastly improved. It should be.
Much of the rest of the world is investing in high-speed rail, or upgrading its conventional infrastructure, and Canada is the only Group of Seven country without high-speed rail.
In the next decade, Germany will invest €86-billion ($125-billion) in passenger service; Deutsche Bahn is currently operating under a shortfall of €3-billion. Its recent “green” platform, largely criticized for its meekness, will see taxes on train tickets lowered and taxes on domestic air travel increased. China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network in only a decade. Even in the United States, where passenger rail was neglected for most of the last century, bold projects are underway in California, in Florida, in Texas and the Midwest.
Shouldn’t the same thing be happening in Canada?
We’re a country because of the railway, for goodness sake. As Pierre Berton noted in his 1971 history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, The Last Spike, “it is a country shaped like a river – or a railway.” In the days after Confederation, nation-building was the challenge – along with the occasional impassable bit of mountain. Now, the challenge is curtailing our greenhouse gas emissions by curbing car and plane travel, with passenger rail as an integral part of that plan.
Yet, in this federal election campaign, only the Green Party has made passenger rail an issue. “Rail will be the hub” of the Greens’ national transportation strategy. It includes investing $720-million in regional rail upgrades and building the long-debated high-speed corridors between Calgary and Edmonton and Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City. Green Party leader Elizabeth May even did a quick whistlestop campaign tour on Via Rail last month. The NDP’s platform pledges support to a proposed high-frequency rail corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont. Otherwise, Canada’s federal parties are happy to let this particular train sit on the sidings.
“We’re behind other countries,” says David Collenette, the former federal transport minister who wrote a report in 2016 on high-speed rail in Southwestern Ontario for the government of Kathleen Wynne. After a variety of scenarios were tested, Mr. Collenette’s report concluded that there was a business case to be made for an electrified, high-speed passenger service (hitting 250 km/hr) between the university hubs of London and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., and on to Toronto. Extending the line from London to Windsor would make less business sense.
Farmers complained about the potential disruption to agriculture along the route, but the Wynne government approved the plan and announced in 2018 that it would spend $11-billion over seven years building the high-speed corridor.
And then, as you may have heard, it lost the provincial election to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. The promise of a quick, car-free trip between London and Toronto went off the rails. In Alberta, similarly, Rachel Notley’s NDP government had talked about the possibility of a bullet train between Edmonton and Calgary, not the first time such a project had been announced. Then that government, too, was voted out, and with it the ambitious plans for a greener future. This cycle, which also kills urban light-rail and subway projects, could be summed up as: railways long, politics short.
“When governments change, priorities change,” Mr. Collenette says. “It’s easy to throw out certain promises of a previous government. And passenger rail, whether it’s high speed or conventional rail or urban rapid transit, those are often the plans that get changed.”
Okay, that’s the prerogative of politicians. Fine. Huge infrastructure projects are difficult to push through at the best of times.
And for a variety of reasons, including our strung-out geography and historical underinvestment, intercity passenger rail is a tough sell from a strictly profit-making perspective. In July, The Canadian Press uncovered a confidential memo from Via Rail indicating that the Montreal-Quebec City leg of its proposed high-frequency corridor would be a drain on resources. As mentioned, when Mr. Collenette studied the prospect of high-speed rail in Southern Ontario, he concluded there was a business case for the service between Toronto and London but not onto Windsor, but “you could make those choices for other socioeconomic reasons," he said. These decisions might not be the most strictly cost-efficient in this age of the passenger car and the jet, but might in 30 or 50 years time if we’re serious about reducing reliance on both. More than one expert paraphrased Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
The flygskam (“flight-shame,” the guilt felt over flight emissions) movement makes more sense in Sweden, where it was born. It’s easier, if you’re an employer, to give incentives to workers not to fly across the country when the country is relatively small; it’s a lot harder to ask Joe or Judith to take a train from Vancouver to Winnipeg.
The flip side of flygskam is tagskryt, or train-boasting, which we could use a bit more of in this country. Electric trains are a more efficient, less polluting way of moving people around, especially if the electricity is generated through low-emission means such as renewable or nuclear energy, and not, say, coal.
According to the International Energy Agency’s Future of Rail report, trains carry 8 per cent of the world’s passengers, but consume only 2 per cent of the energy used in transportation.
Nadine Ibrahim, who holds the Turkstra Chair in Urban Engineering at the University of Waterloo, says, “If you look at it from an environmental perspective, the fuel used in trains versus the fuel used in planes or cars, it’s automatically a better option. It’s a larger number of people moved in a more sustainable manner.”
Prof. Ibrahim, for one, would like an efficient rail connection between Waterloo, where she works, and Toronto, where she lives. As it is, she leaves home at 6 a.m. to beat the nightmarish traffic on Highway 401. Even a limited light-rail project, such as Kitchener-Waterloo’s new ION line, has made a huge improvement in students’ lives, she says: “It’s made things much more affordable for students who can now live a little bit farther away and still get to school.”
In this way, ambitious transportation policy makes life better beyond the time you’re in transit. “High-speed intercity rail policy is also really good housing policy,” says urban planner Joe Berridge, citing figures from Britain’s expansion of its well-used rail network. In essence, having fast, reliable transit links means you’re creating value for those who can live and own a house in a commuter belt, without having to drive to work.
Mr. Berridge recently returned from China, and he’s still marvelling over the high-speed trains and the gleaming stations that housed them. “China is a vast country, but so are we. There are vast spaces between cities, as there are in Canada.” The difference is that the Chinese government has much more muscle in determining where it will put tracks and stations. And it has fast-growing cities of many millions, where Canada has modestly sized cities with empty stretches between them.
The high-speed train between Milan and Rome is also a marvel, Mr. Berridge says, “and that’s something we could do in Canada.” Even the train-averse United States, where the car has long been king, is building small stretches of fast rail. Richard Branson’s Virgin trains will soon be plying a route between Miami and Orlando. Dallas and Houston are set to have a connection, and even the troubled link between Los Angeles and San Francisco is forging ahead, despite cost overruns, delays and the federal government’s attempts to pull its funding.
The federal government could show some initiative by bolstering Via Rail, which has suffered the death of bureaucratic cuts almost since its birth in 1977. But Via does have a plan involving Toronto-Montreal, the most popular of its routes. To see where the problems on this route currently lie, it is instructive to look at the record of VIA’s public meeting in 2018, during which it fielded various questions from irritated passengers, most of them on a certain theme: Why are your trains so late, and why do my teeth feel like they’re being jarred loose when I ride them? Via’s answer, in essence: not our rails, not our fault.
Via’s passenger trains run almost entirely on tracks owned by CN and CP, and those tracks are much more heavily used by freight trains and their valuable cargo. As anybody will know who’s had to pull over into a siding and watch a freight train go by, conflicts can and do happen, and the passengers seldom win.
So Via has a bold new plan: a route involving yet-to-be-built and existing tracks from Toronto to Quebec City, via Peterborough, Ottawa and Montreal. Passenger trains, running on dedicated tracks and no longer playing second fiddle to freight, would be able to run more frequently, at higher speeds. It would cost an estimated $4-billion (although you know what happens to estimates). Journey times would be shorter, and punctuality would improve. Add to this the benefit of train travel – being able to get up and stretch, to have a scotch if you liked, and to never have to curse the driver who cut you off in traffic. As they used to say in the old commercials: priceless.
In June, Via’s high-frequency rail plan got a boost and, more importantly, a cash infusion of $71-million from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank and Transport Canada for “additional planning activities,” which hopefully means “studies to see if we can make this thing work.” The infrastructure bank has also committed $1.3-billion to Montreal’s light-rail network, the Réseau Express Métropolitain, or REM, which is currently under construction.
If the feasibility studies are in Via’s favour, commuters between Montreal and Toronto could benefit from an alternative to clogged highways and annoying airports. They could pat themselves on the back for making an ethical choice, and indulge in a little tagskryt. On the other hand, the political power structure might change, and Via’s new plan will end up on top of a burning pile of similar reports from years gone by.
Perhaps the fundamental problem is one of perception. Our history is so entwined with railroads that we can only view trains historically. (Clearly, anyone who feels this way has not seen China’s new 600 km/hr maglev beast.) As Shoshanna Saxe, assistant professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, put it: “We’re used to conceiving travel traditionally as oriented around the car, so we don’t have the lived experience of what the alternative can be.”
This short-termism is what might ruin us all in the end. It’s certainly been the dispiriting tone of this election campaign. Yes, reinvesting in passenger rail would be expensive and bold, but what’s the alternative? To see only what’s always been in front of us, to judge everything only by the narrowest measure of immediate return on investment – is that how great civilizations are built? Is that how they’re maintained? Or is it how they fall?
The Germans are thinking ahead. The Chinese are, too. In this moment of collective awakening about the planet’s future, will Canada be able to make a leap of hope and ambition? As Prof. Saxe says, “We need to be able to imagine a different way of building our infrastructure. We need a new collective imagination of the future.”
I saw a tiny glimpse of that future when my family took a (packed) train out of Berlin for a kayaking trip in the countryside. We managed to navigate the ticket-buying with little difficulty, but the ticket-taker onboard clucked at our lack of savvy. We could have saved a lot of money, she said, by buying a different family pass. Pretty soon, everyone sitting near us was chiming in with their two euros worth, offering advice in German and English about precisely the best way to get cheap tickets. I think they were still debating when we got off the train. It means something to them, this rail system that they love to complain about. It’s part of their national fabric. It could be part of ours again, too.
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