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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Happy National Railway Day!

Say what?

Canada, the country with the rapidly eroding passenger rail network, has a National Railway Day?

Well, it does.  I didn't know about it until I received an email from the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, announcing that the Sault Ste. Marie council recently voted to recognise the day.  That the Soo is recognising how important the railway has been to Canada is appropriate.  Once the hub of the iconic (and now defunct) Algoma Central Railway, the city is now home to what is effectively a branchline on CN's network.  The Coalition is lobbying for better rail connections between the Soo and Sudbury, including passenger rail.  Given the amount of trackage being torn up in Ontario, and the provincial government's plan to sell off Ontario Northland, they certainly have an uphill battle.  That said, they have strong local support and tomorrow CAPT and Transport Action Canada will host the National Dream Renewed, a cross-Canada series of town hall meetings hoping to foster discussion about investing in and expanding passenger rail in Canada.

National Railway Day is now in its third year.  Proclaimed by Stephen Harper's government in 2010, it marks the anniversary of the driving of the last spike on the Canadian Pacific at Craigellachie, British Columbia in 1885.  There is no doubt as to the enormous impact that the railway had in the formation of Canada.  In much of the country, the railway was the first viable mode of transportation for crossing muskeg, lakes and dense forests.  In the 127 years since the completion of the transcontinental route, Canada has seen railways come and go, but rail freight continues to innovate and grow.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for passenger rail.  VIA Rail has faced repeated cuts throughout its history, recently scaling back nearly all of its services to concentrate resources on the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle.  In my view, we are seeing the end of VIA Rail's national mandate.  We are seeing the consolidation of an intercity passenger rail network between the three most important cities in the eastern half of the country.  What of the rest?  It would seem that they no longer matter.  Provided one other mode of transport is available, VIA feels it can withdraw its presence from a region.

I do not blame VIA for this.  After all, the fact that they have been able to keep so much running with so little funding or public support is remarkable.  It doesn't have to be this way.  Even in the most car-loving country in the world, the United States, Amtrak's ridership figures are through the roof and billions of dollars are being invested in improving service - and not just in the Boston-Washington corridor.

Canada's National Railway Day is not the same as the American National Train Day, which is a celebration of the past, present and future of rail in the US.  Canada's new holiday is to remember only the past of railways, the official release did not mention the present or the future of rail in Canada at all.  This is probably because, unless you are a big logistics company or a bulk shipper of natural resources, the railways in this country no longer mean much to you.  Outside of three commuter rail networks and what is left of VIA, most communities in Canada aren't even served by a passenger train anymore.  To focus on the present would be depressing; the government must instead rely on a nostalgia trip.

I decided to celebrate the holiday in my own way, by photographing a train in Canada.  Here is VIA 60 rolling under Henry Street in Whitby this past lunchtime.


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