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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Union shut out of Ontario Northland plans

In theory, the "transformation" of the ONTC was designed to open up dialogue and make the process more transparent. In practice, it's not that simple...

>>>Union shut out of Ontario Northland plans<<<

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Federal Government Axes Soo-Heart Passenger Train

When CN acquired the former Algoma Central, the Sault Ste. Marie-Hearst passenger train continued to run thanks to a subsidy from the federal government. Late last week, the government announced that it is stopping the subsidy, meaning that the train will no longer run after March 31, 2014. There has been very little press coverage so far, but the decision has already been made.

It has been a very bad few years for passenger rail in northern Ontario. The big blow has of course been the loss of the Northlander in 2012, but VIA Rail's Canadian has also been cut back during the winter months. The CN/ACR line has recently lost the Snow Train too. From April, the only two passenger trains in the north (apart for the Canadian) will be the Cochrane-Moosonee Polar Bear Express and the Agawa Canyon Tour. Any hopes for an integrated network of passenger rail across the north have been dealt a major blow.

As I near the end of the research for my book about the proposed divestment of Ontario Northland, I can fully appreciate how vital passenger rail is in the north and how this latest cancellation is just rubbing salt in the wound.

The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains has already started a letter writing campaign to voice their concern at the announcement. They are best-suited to lead a public campaign against the closure and I hope you will support them in their fight to restore passenger rail to the north. You can join their campaign here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Revisiting the Canadian $10 Bill

Back in May, I wrote the following about Canada's new $10 bill:

It wasn't exactly a secret that the new $10 bill would feature VIA Rail's The Canadian, but now it has been officially released.  Unfortunately, my first impression is that it is UGLY!

However, looking at the route map in the background, does this mean that the government will keep funding VIA all across Canada?  It would be pretty pathetic to have to re-issue bills if there were more budget cuts.
Zoom: Canada's new polymer $5 and $10 bills

Now that the bill is in circulation, I have been able to actually hold it and examine it more closely. In reality, the artwork is much nicer than the photograph suggests and it is quite an attractive design (as far as the polymer notes go). It isn't as ugly as I first thought and I expect it to grow on me.

Canada $10 Bank Note. Courtesy: Bank of Canada
The new Canadian $10 bill. Courtesy: Bank of Canada

One of the things that interested me about the bill was the route map in the background. It appears to show all of VIA Rail's routes across Canada. It can't show all of Canada's railways, because the Ontario Northland and the CN/Algoma Central are (among others) missing. However, as I warned in my initial musings, the map is now incorrect. VIA Rail no longer operates trains on Vancouver Island and the train to Gaspé has also been cancelled. As such, the map on the banknote is no longer accurate and represents VIA Rail as it was in the past, not the present.

The locomotive on the bill, F40 #6403, also no longer exists - sort of. Following the release of the new bill, VIA renumbered the locomotive to #6459 in case the bill jinxed it. Further, all F40 locomotives feature the 'VIA Rail Canada' logo on the nose, but it has been removed from the photo, leaving only the 'Canada' logo used by the government. Does this mean that VIA is erased from the image of railways in Canada?

To top it all off, the locomotive pictured was built by General Motors. When GM sold its locomotive division, the new owner, EMD, closed the entire London, Ontario operation when the unions didn't agree to a 50% pay cut. The bill's imagery is quickly becoming as dead as Sir John A. MacDonald in the top corner of the bill (sorry, Sir John).

What does this mean? Does the bill represent a Canadian past, rather than a present or future? I decided to put on my historian's hat and think about this puzzle. After a while, I decided that this new bill represents a lieux de mémoire - a concept articulated by the French scholar Pierre Nora, a leading theorist in memory history.

Nora's core concept is that memory is so prevalent because "there is so little of it left." [Nora, 7] As the past disappears, and our memory of it, we shelter in "lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory." [Nora, 7] When we want to remember travelling by rail as a child, we get on a train and take a physical journey as well as one through our memory of past events. However, what if the train stops running? Then it has become what Nora describes as a lieux de mémoire. Railways, notably the Canadian Pacific, have a central place in the collective memory of Canadian identity. We are told in school that the railway built Canada, yet most Canadians do not experience railway travel on a regular basis. Apart from commuter rail in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, most Canadians never travel by train. [StatsCan] The reality is that passenger rail in Canada has been disappearing for generations. As a result, decades of Canadians have had little interaction with a rapidly-disappearing railway network. In recent years, VIA Rail has cut its network to focus mostly on the core Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor. As Nora puts it: "modern memory is, above all, archival." [Nora, 13] The train has already left the station, so to speak.

The image on the $10 bill is therefore a symbol of something that has disappeared from contemporary Canada: travel by train. More worryingly is that travel by train could truly be a thing of the past. Has the "continuity of memory" given way to "the discontinuity of history" as we realise that the past cannot be recreated? [Nora, 17] The lieux de mémoire is like a permanent hiatus, a safe place to put something that is gone. Why not enshrine it in a bank note?

I shall close with a final thought on the aesthetics of the bill. By choosing to depict the iconic Canadian in the Rockies, wouldn't it make sense to choose an image of the dome car at the end? It is far more photogenic and recognizable than the locomotives. You could even have the train winding through Morant's Curve... Oh wait, VIA doesn't travel through Morant's Curve anymore. Cutbacks in the 1990s meant that VIA only uses CN tracks through the Rockies. Yet another lieux de mémoire?

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7–24. Online version.
Statistics Canada: Rail in Canada.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

1960 UJA Study Mission to Israel

Much of my research into the interaction between fundraising and identity in Toronto's Jewish community has focused on the city's United Jewish Appeal, the largest Jewish fundraising organisation in the city. I recently came across this video of the UJA's 1960 study visit to Israel.

A few things are interesting about this video. Firstly, it is very relevant given Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to Israel this week. Secondly, it shows the situation on the ground in 1960. As I did my research at the Ontario Jewish Archives, I spent most of my time looking at text with little visual reference as to what Israel actually looked like. This video shows shacks and rubble as Israel dealt with a staggering increase in population and also conflicts on many fronts. Regardless of political views, the transformation of Israel from a largely agrarian society in the 1950s to the modern, cosmopolitan, waterfront of Tel Aviv today is a remarkable story.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Big turnout in Stratford for Derailed screening

The excellent De-Railed: The National Dream was recently screened in Stratford, a once-important Ontario railway town. Stuck on the edge of the VIA Rail network, the town has felt recent cuts and over 80 people attended to call for improvements to passenger rail right across the country.
>>>On the right track | Beacon Herald<<<

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sousa's staff clarifies comments

During finance minister Charles Sousa's visit to North Bay, his comments appeared to suggest that the Northlander might return. However, his office later clarified the issue stating that this was not the case. This can be read in several ways:
1) a simple mistake
2) a secret policy to be unveiled in case of an election
3) a lack of understanding within the Liberal causus where different politicians are on completely different wavelengths
My money is on a combination of 1 and 3.
>>>Sousa's staff clarifies comments | North Bay Nugget<<<

Ontario finance minister speaks at Nipissing University

Finance minister Charles Sousa was in North Bay for pre-budget meetings yesterday. Not surprisingly, the ONTC was a major topic of discussion for local media. While it appears that he didn't mention divestment, he also emphasised that no decisions had been made about what the future of the ONTC would look like, other than he believed that the services it provides must be secured.
>>>Ontario finance minister speaks at Nipissing University<<<

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The End of the Whitby, Port Perry & Lindsay Railway

In Stand Clear of the Doors, I talked about the history of the Whitby, Port Perry & Lindsay Railway (WPPL), a line which connected Whitby with Port Perry in 1869 and later with Lindsay in 1877. The "Nip & Tuck"was part of Whitby life, in one form or another, right up to the 1970s.

The WPPL didn't remain the WPPL for long, being absorbed first into the Midland Railway in 1891 and then into the Grand Trunk in 1893. The line, running from Whitby's harbour north to Lindsay, also included a connecting track to Whitby's main station, allowing for easy travel to Toronto for communities to the north of Whitby such as Brooklin, Myrtle, Port Perry and Lindsay. Traffic on the line declined and in 1941, CN (who now owned the Grand Trunk) abandoned the line from Lindsay to the junction with CP in Whitby, leaving the remainder as an interchange between the CN, CP and Whitby harbour. Finally, in 1978, CN abandoned the line entirely. As the newspapers commented, the WPPL was gone, after just over a century of use.

However, as I pointed out in my book, this was not the case. While CN had torn up the line between its main line and CP, it had retained the portion connecting CN with the harbour. The "Whitby Harbor Spur" (yes, without a 'u' in harbour!) was kept to access several manufacturing facilities near the lake. As a result, the last portion of the WPPL saw regular CN local freight trains right up until 2008, when Smurfit MBI, the last rail-served facility, closed. The track remained and was occasionally used for storage until recently.

This December 2013 photograph shows the real end of the WPPL. The area around the connection between CN's main line and the harbour spur is being excavated as part of the new GO Transit East Region Rail Maintenance Facility being built in south Whitby. With no customers on the spur, the track has been removed and the one crossing (Watson Street, where the photo was shot) has been paved over. The WPPL survived an impressive 35 years longer than its official death-date.

The true end of the WPPL is another event in the transformation of Whitby into a commuter suburb of Toronto. The process has been going on for decades, but the removal of one of the last spurs in town assures that Whitby won't have any new rail freight customers.

Speaking of the new maintenance facility, there have been very few updates of late because construction remains firmly in the "let's move a giant mound of dirt around the site" phase. Of course, there is more to it than that, there are new access roads and drainage systems have been installed (much of the land around the site is marsh). When there is visible progress, I hope to begin the updates again.

If you enjoyed reading a little about the WPPL, why not learn more about it in my railway history of Whitby. Stand Clear of the Doors is available now!

CAPT's Annual Meeting: Blind River, January 19

The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains is holding its annual meeting in Blind River on January 19. The meeting will focus on two things: a screening of the excellent documentary De-Railed: The National Dream (if you haven't seen it yet, I urge you to) and then a discussion focusing on the possibility of restoring passenger rail between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. See this website for details of times and location.