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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

DVD Review: De-Railed

Trailer for De-Railed: The National Dream

For many years, I have been ranting and raving about the decline of railways in Canada.  Yes, there is growth in the GTA thanks to commuter rail, but the rest of the country is increasingly seeing railways reduced to single tracks for CN and CP.  I really believe that the future of rail in Canada is troubled, so imagine my relief to discover that I am not alone in my concern.

I recently received my copy of De-Railed: The National Dream, a new documentary by Sault Ste. Marie-based filmmaker Dan Nystedt.  Not only do other people share my fear for Canada's railway future, but some of them care enough to make a documentary about it.  In this 70-minute production, Nystedt takes us on a frenetic trip across the country, surveying the state of rail and profiling the people looking to halt, and even reverse, the decline.

The trip begins in northern Ontario, looking at the uncertain future of the Huron Central Railway, a company leasing the CP line from the Soo to Sudbury, in desperate need of infrastructure funding to keep running.  After rushing through the story of the railway, which I found to have a cliffhanger ending (as it still does in reality), the documentary continues to profile other threatened railways in Canada including the Ontario Northland (which, at the time of filming, was considered to be "hanging by a thread").  From Ontario, the trip continues to the Prairies to look at the consolidation of branchlines serving the grain industry and the various communities that have banded together to buy abandoned lines to continue shipping their grain to market on their own terms.  The journey concludes on Vancouver Island, where the Island Corridor Foundation is trying to reopen the abandoned CP line along the spine of the island.

The claim that the documentary is a coast-to-coast journey is not entirely clear as Quebec and the Maritimes are hardly mentioned.  The production features interesting and insightful interviews with many different people, including native leaders, academics, lobbyists, politicians, railroaders and even Amtrak president Joseph Boardman.  The interviews show how people from all walks of life are concerned about the direction Canada is taking when it comes to rail.  Shockingly, the country has lost over 12,000 km of track in the last 20 years and only just over 1% of government infrastructure money is spent on what railway network is left.

I really felt that the production was too short.  From the credits, it was clear that the number of people appearing in the finished product represented only a small fraction of the number actually interviewed.  Likewise, much of the footage in the introduction and conclusion shows that the trip was in fact far more coast-to-coast than the film showed.  Of course, all productions have time limits, but I really felt that 70 minutes was too short and that it caused the story to be abbreviated too much.  At times it felt as if the story was being sacrificed for the sake of brevity.  This documentary is not a narrative or a comprehensive guide to all the issues, but rather an overview of several initiatives from across the country.  It can at times feel a little disjointed, but as some of the people pointed out, Canada has no national transportation strategy, so this feeling of disconnect is to be expected.

This independent documentary gives a very good and persuasive overview of the crisis in Canadian railways as lines are torn up because the scrap value of the rail outweighs the value of the railway itself.  I would like to see public broadcasters, such as TVO, pick up this documentary because it profiles an important issue in Canada's future: what happens should, heaven forbid, we need railways again one day?

Authors often end up blinkered when working on their latest project.  I confess that working on my upcoming Ontario Northland book, I have tended to ignore railway issues in the rest of Canada.  Dan Nystedt's latest full-length documentary has helped me to reconnect with the bigger rail picture in Canada.  De-Railed is fast, intelligent and left me asking: when is Part 2 coming out?

De-Railed: The National Dream is available now on DVD through the Form Productions website.  Copies cost $20 each.

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