This page is archived and no longer maintained. For updates click here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Rail Rover Madness

Britain's railways come in for a lot of criticism. The privatized, franchise-based system is absurd and has created two decades of fare increases and headaches for all parties (except shareholders that is). High-Speed 2 is on track to be overly complicated, expensive and obsolete by the time it is completed generations from now. Putting the cost of tickets aside (Britain has one of the - if not the - most expensive networks in Europe), the tickets themselves are impossibly complicated. Even the government struggles to understand the system.

However, in all the chaos devised by the (sadistic) ticket powers-that-be, there are a few gems. One of these is the rover ticket. Rarely advertised, rover tickets allow you unlimited travel within specific regions within a specific period of time. Not satisfied to leave the system that simple, there are a whole pile of restrictions, but rover tickets are normally more flexible than any others on the network. For my rail holiday this year, I decided to see how useful a rover ticket really was.

Based in York, I decided to buy a North Country 4-in-8 Day Rover, which covers the vast majority of the north of England and, like its name suggests, allows you unlimited travel (after 8:45 am, except on weekends when there are no time restrictions AND as long as you steer clear of Hull Trains and Grand Central Trains AND as long as you stand on your head whenever asked to - OK, that bit's not true) on your choice of any four days in an eight-day period. Roughly speaking, the ticket covers the routes bordered by the Cumbrian Coast Line, the Preston-Bradford line, the Hull, Scarborough and Whitby lines and the Carlisle-Newcastle Line. (See the map for details). You will note that Manchester is conspicuously absent from the list. This eliminates the fastest trans-Pennine route and requires a more careful reading of timetables, which is all part of the fun. Even without a railcard, this ticket only costs £88. With my ticket bought, it was time to plan four days of rail-based rover madness.

Day 1: Crewe
Route: York - Preston - Crewe - Preston - York

I have a confession to make. Until this trip, I had never been to Crewe, the railway Mecca of trainspotters around the UK. If you look at the rover map, you will see that Crewe is too far south to be part of the plan, so I had to cheat.

Boarding a Sunday morning York-Blackpool North train, I rolled through the former textile and manufacturing hubs of Bradford and Halifax before alighting at Preston. I had bought a separate Preston-Crewe return ticket, but this was the only additional travel expense during my rover madness. At Preston, I had some time to wander around the city and admire the bus station, the largest in Britain, and the pedestrianized downtown (I expect few people admire the bus station, but it is actually quite nice). Preston's railway station is itself one of the prettiest on the network and Virgin Trains' choice of red and white really complements the stonework. Using my other ticket, I travelled south to Crewe, where I visited the Crewe Heritage Centre.

Two High Speed Trains / Deux trains à grande vitesse
Two generations of high speed train at Crewe

Situated just to the north of Crewe station, the Heritage Centre has no direct access and required a 20-minute detour through the street of Crewe to reach. Buried behind the Tesco parking lot, the Centre features displays of photos, ongoing rolling stock restoration, three signal boxes (one of which is operated according to an accurate 1960s timetable, bells and all), an excellent viewing platform overlooking the West Coast Main Line and the only InterCity APT in preservation.

The APT was British Rail's attempt at truly high-speed trains. While the InterCity 125 was a hit, it could not keep up with French and Japanese offerings. The Advanced Passenger Train was ahead of its time, complete with tilting mechanism to enable faster speeds on conventional track curves. After only a few years, the train was withdrawn. More than a generation later, tilting technology would finally return to the network in the form of the Alstom-built Pendolinos, which now pass the APT on the main line every day. The Centre is also home to the NMRA's Calder Valley group, one of the American organizations's British chapters. Watching a Vermont Railway wood chip train run on their layout made me a little homesick, as did the giant cut-out Mountie on the wall. My visit complete, I took the circuitous route back to the station.

A Pendolino arrives at Preston in warm evening light

I don't normally get excited about travelling on a specific type of train (normally, if it isn't a Pacer unit I am happy), but my return trip to Preston was aboard a Virgin Trains Pendolino. I had never been on one before and I was very impressed. Smooth, fast, quiet and with decor obviously inspired by aircraft, the Pendolino feels modern. I think the tilting mechanism was in use and I didn't notice the usual swing out in a curve I normally associate with rail travel at speed. My Pendolino experience complete, I retraced my steps back to York, arriving just over 12 hours after I had left that morning.

Day 2: Malton and Scarborough
Route: York - Malton - Scarborough - York

This day wasn't really about trains at all. It is important to nurture multiple interests, and I was curious to learn more about rural English life.

Setting off from York again, I took the train along the very scenic line to Malton - a true market town. Every Tuesday and Friday, farmers gather for the Malton Livestock Auction. I had never seen a livestock auction before, but I felt that I should better understand where food actually comes from. This particular Tuesday was the Easter sale and featured both cattle and sheep. Most of the morning was taken up by trailer after trailer of stock being unloaded, registered and put in holding pens awaiting the sale.

First up was the cattle, who are sold in a ring in a large barn. I was very surprised with how quickly I was able to pick up the fast-talking auctioneer. Essentially, cattle are sold by pence-per-kilo; all the fast-talking is really just pushing up the price, with most cows selling for between 150-200 pence per kilo. After lunch, the sheep were sold right in the holding pens, with the auctioneers precariously perched above them. Unlike cattle, sheep are sold by the batch. Assured that food really does come from the farm, I set off to the station to catch a train to Scarborough.

In many ways, Scarborough is the east coast's Blackpool. A true seaside resort, Scarborough is full of touristy stuff: food, seagulls, flashing lights, casinos and gambling houses, a beach, a lifeboat and lots of rather sad-looking locals. I don't normally like 'mass' entertainment, it is too hectic for me, but I wandered through the crowds and found some peace in the working harbour (Scarborough still has a fishing fleet) and then along the spa end of the beach. Feeling I had seen enough, I headed back to York for supper - beef.

Day 3: Ribblehead
Route: York - Leeds - Ribblehead - Leeds - York

The Settle-Carlisle Railway is one of my favourite railway journeys in the world. Travelling through miles of tunnels, dales and generally empty countryside, the line is a truly special part of Britain's railway network. I had travelled the line in 2002 and again in 2013, but I had never actually explored the countryside along the line. Where better to begin than the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct?

After a quick train to Leeds, I got on the train for Carlisle, which sadly only runs every two hours. In many ways, we are lucky to have the line at all. During the 1980s, the line was slated for closure, but was saved thanks to a grassroots campaign which boosted ridership and made the route viable again. This year marks 25 years since it was saved. Before reaching the Settle-Carlise route, the train runs through suburban Leeds-Bradford, including the model community of Saltaire. After Settle, the line begins winding its way through the Yorkshire Dales and I got off at Ribblehead station to begin my exploration.

Even on a cloudy day, the viaduct is imposing

Weather along the line is very dynamic and I was greeted with rain, strong winds and cold temperatures. While I had packed and dressed accordingly, my time at Ribblebead was bleak and made photography a challenge, with many images featuring the tell-tale blurs of raindrops on the lens. Having looked at the viaduct, which is a 440-yard marvel built into marshy ground, I walked north beside the line to Blea(k) Moor signal box, one of the most remote in England and one which is still in use. When people were naming the Moor all those years ago, they obviously forgot to add the "k" at the end, so I have corrected their mistake. From there, I continued north to Blea(k) Moor Tunnel, the longest on the line at over 2,600 yards.  Along the way, I stopped for photos and to commune with sheep and, more specifically, this year's lambs, who are the most curious, playful and adorable creatures known to man. In fact, my entire week was dotted by flocks of lambs scurrying from beside the line as my trains rolled by.

From the south portal of the tunnel, I started to climb to the left, only to learn that every time you crest a hill, another higher one appears in front of you. I finally gave up, cold and tired, when I reached the clouds. The wind was incessant and the sporadic rain was making the day somewhat arduous. In many ways, going down was much harder as any misstep would have meant a nasty fall for a tired climber. Somehow, I safely retraced my route, reaching the viaduct again just as a weak sun broke through. Having traipsed around in the marsh for a while, I came to appreciate just how incredible this railway line really is. Much of the land is covered in a thick, springy moss, which can easily sink inches into water when you step on it. Once the route was surveyed, the first construction task was securing dry and stable land, which must have been incredibly hard work, especially if the weather was like my unfortunately-chosen day. I returned to the station, where I marvelled at a group of hyperactive young children, full of energy after a day's hike - incredible.

Houses, viaduct and trains all dwarfed by the landscape

Having taken a train back to Leeds, I started to get creative with the rover ticket. Since you aren't locked into a specific journey, you can choose whichever train you like. Naturally, I had planned out a full itinerary for the four days, but now I felt confident enough to deviate from the plan. Ditching my original First TransPennine Express train to York, I opted instead for a Northern Rail stopping service on the same route. The result? A full FOUR minutes earlier into York. Not much of a time saving, but it got me out of Leeds station more quickly. Leeds Station has been fully renovated in recent years, but remains incredibly dark and uninviting. With cobwebs thoroughly blown out of my mind (and the rest of me for that matter) after a day on the hills, I headed home.

Day 4: The Cumbrian Coast
Route: York - Newcastle - Carlisle - Parton - Whitehaven - Carlisle - Leeds - York

This was my most ambitious trip, the most likely to go wrong and, in a sense, it did. My first encounter with the British rail network was in the spring of 2002, during the Railtrack fiasco which was bringing trains to a standstill and when 120+ minute delays were the norm. Unfazed, I waxed lyrical about the system which, compared to Canada, was leagues ahead. Since then, punctuality and the British network have both improved, perhaps lulling me into a false sense of security.

When planning my trips, I always tried to leave about 30 minutes for connections. Not only does this allow more time for photos at stations, but is also meant padding in case something was running late.

My ambitious plan was to get photos of the Cumbrian Coast line, a marvel of engineering running from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness. In many places, only a narrow sea wall separates cliff-hugging trains from the Irish Sea and winter storms routinely cause the line to be closed for repairs. I had carefully planned photo locations and had settled on Parton and Whitehaven having the best views. Needing all the time I could get, I left this trip for Saturday so that I could leave as early as possible.

Awake and up at 4:30, I was at York Station bright and early for the 6:33 train to Newcastle. A quick glance at the departure board and I was waiting on platform 5B. A more detailed glance showed that the train was late - expected 7:00, then 7:07, then 7:11, then 7:24. My connection at Newcastle was about to evaporate. Hunting down printed timetables, I found that the 7:06 Transpennine Express train would get me to Newcastle with about 5 minutes to make my connection. With that, I made my first change of the morning. Beside me on my revised trip to Newcastle were two Network Rail employees eagerly following the progress of the late-running 6:33, which was trying to make up time behind us. There had been some sort of catastrophic meltdown involving either the track or signals, but my new train was on time, even if I was 33 minutes later than I wanted to be. I wasn't panicking, but I was heading that way.

After crossing the Tyne, we arrived at Newcastle at 8:20. Shooting out of the train, I bounded across the footbridge and just made the 8:24 to Carlisle. Relaxing just as I sat down, my originally planned train, the delayed 6:33, pulled into Newcastle 10 seconds after my Carlisle train left. I had beaten the system.

The Newcastle-Carlisle route is another beautiful journey, winding for much of the way alongside the Tyne (a rural, idyllic, non-industrial river this far upstream). It was a gorgeous, sunny morning as we rolled through the Northumbrian scenery. We arrived at a quiet Carlisle Station (Glasgow trains were replaced by buses) and I changed for the Cumbrian Coast train.

Service on the Cumbrian Coast line is sporadic. While normally one train an hour, Sundays see much of the route devoid of service entirely. That is not to say that the train isn't popular. On the contrary, it is exceedingly popular and most trains I saw on my journey along the line were standing-room only. The route from Carlisle passes through more farmland, complete with lambs, but really becomes interesting at Maryport, where the line joins the coast. This was my introduction to something I had never seen before: post-industrial seascapes.

Unlike the pastoral idyll of the Lake District, the Cumbrian Coast has long been an industrial space, first with fishing, then ship-building and now unemployment. Along the coast, we passed countless derelict buildings, ruins, miles of fencing protecting piles of concrete rubble. As beautiful as the coastal stretches of the route are, they can't hide the industrial decline or the fact that Sellafield is just down the line. The line was also my first experience of a request stop. I asked to get off at Parton, a sleepy town only separated from the Irish Sea by the railway.

The Cumbrian Coast line, where trains meet the sea

I sat on the rocky coast eating lunch and watching the onshore and offshore wind farms taking advantage of the incessant sea breeze. With so few trains, I had plenty of time to scout for locations. Other than wander around, there wasn't much to do in Parton. Even the village shop appeared to have closed down.

I spent much of the afternoon moving from one photo angle to another, climbing up the cliffs and marvelling at the tiny trains dwarfed by both land and sea. I then started to walk along the cycle path to Whitehaven, a route which follows the railway line the entire 2-miles between the towns.

Whitehaven is as depressed as Parton is quiet. It is a place where you can buy a 3-bedroom semi for under £90,000. While the former maritime hub has tried to rebrand as a retirement community, it hasn't worked. Many buildings are for sale, crumbling or both. While the town centre is looking bright, all around it is blight.

The centre of activity appeared to be the Tesco, a giant modern complex next to the railway station. Outside, groups of teenagers hung around, looking about as excited as one could be by sitting outside a supermarket. I got the feeling that it was a rough place and that the industrial decline from nearby Barrow-in-Furness was felt here quite strongly. Whitehaven is the only place I have ever seen trespassers on the railway in the UK - a group of hoodies climbing over a fence to walk along the coastal route. I had had enough of Whitehaven and opted to catch an earlier train back to Carlisle.

The return along the coast was just as enjoyable as exploring the coastal paths had been. Now that I had seen the line from above, I could see just how close to the water we really were. North of Parton, another first: a group of teenagers throwing rocks at the train. I had seen this in Canada, but never before in the UK. It is naive of me to think that the 2,800-strong British Transport Police are just there to stand at stations. In fact, a BTP officer joined our train before Carlisle as the Saturday night crowd was starting to appear.

On the trip from Whitehaven to Carlisle, I was thinking to myself how nice the weather was and how I might stretch my luck and try the Settle-Carlisle line instead of going back via Newcastle as planned. I dismissed the notion as I got off the train in Carlisle at 17:20. The departure board caught my eye, the first train was the (extremely late) 15:47 to Leeds (via the Settle-Carlisle) which was due to leave at 17:25. Fate had intervened and I made a sprint over the bridge to catch it with only seconds to spare.

According to my fellow passengers, a combination of an earlier brake failure and the need for a relief train had caused the delay. The poor conductor spent most of the trip handing out compensation forms so that people could claim for the delay. I refused one, explaining that the delay had in fact allowed me to catch the train.

These sorts of impulsive changes to itineraries are only really possible with such gems as rover tickets. Instead of retracing my steps via Newcastle (and facing a Saturday night at Newcastle and on the East Coast Main Line), I was sitting at a table, eating dinner (oh, the glamour of hours-old homemade sandwiches), watching the gorgeous Settle-Carlisle countryside pass me by in warm evening light. The delay was having repercussions all along the route and crowds of confused and tired walkers joined us at every station. There are many places along the line where there is no cell phone signal, so many of them had no idea why the trains had seemingly vanished.

This last-minute detour was worth it. In 2002, my Settle-Carlisle journey was in fog and rain. In 2013, rain and snow. Earlier in the week, I had been buffeted and rained on at Ribblehead. Today, I was looking out at hills, valleys, lambs and sunshine. With the greyness gone, the fields and hills came alive in an incredible pallet of colours, hues and shadows - magical.

Across the table from me, two walkers were talking about how different the world looked from a train compared to driving. Obviously, they weren't used to rail travel, but I am always glad to hear that people are rediscovering the joy of travelling by train. Earlier in my day, a young family on the Carlisle-Parton journey had marvelled at how much quicker the train was. While they insisted on calling their baby son (on his first rail journey no  less) Mr Pudgy-Wudgy, they were sensible enough to see the benefit of rail travel.

At last, my train reached Leeds, where I waited for the next train back to York. Across the track, the Saturday night crowd heading for Sheffield were joined by at least six BTP officers and a contingent of private security guards. My train to York was surprisingly quiet and I arrived back in York 30 minutes earlier than I had planned on my itinerary, despite having taken a longer route home. I was glad of the changes I had made, not just because I had experienced the Settle-Carlisle in sunshine, but because upon arrival at York, I was met by the people bound for Newcastle. They were enthusiastic to say the least. In fact, they were so eager to get on the train, that they pushed me back onto it as they tried to climb aboard before I had been able to get off. Had I travelled via Newcastle, I might have had hours of them.

My week of rail madness was at an end as I hung up my rover ticket. I had gained hundreds of photos (some of which appear here), a better understanding of the British rail network and, perhaps more importantly, a broader knowledge of the north of England. Despite the media stereotype of the misery of the north, it isn't all bad news. I had uncovered many beautiful railway journeys and some nice towns. Sometimes the story just needs a little more digging to reveal the nuance that makes travel so interesting.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Toxic chemicals, crude oil, radioactive material ride the rails through Toronto

An interesting piece from the Toronto Star highlighting the various dangerous goods that travel on Canadian Pacific's North Toronto Sub. The basic argument of the story is that dangerous goods should not travel through densely populated areas and that information regarding rail cargo should be made more accessible.

A few thoughts:

  • CP isn't the only railway carrying such chemicals. CN's main line cuts through Vaughan and Richmond Hill.
  • It probably would be safer to move these loads on routes through rural areas. Both CN and CP had transcontinental routes which bypassed the GTA altogether. CN's route cut across Northern Ontario via Cochrane to Quebec, while CP's went via North Bay and the Ottawa Valley. Both were cut, meaning that all trains have to go via Toronto. Yet another stupid Canadian railway decision.
  • While I would like to see railway safety regulations bolstered, they aren't the only element in the chemical equation. Anyone who has travelled by train west of Toronto will pass through kilometres of oil refineries, factories and processing plants - all operating in residential areas.
  • As the investigation showed, it is quite easy to determine what trains are carrying. What the investigation fails to note is that the tank cars list not only their contents, but also who to call if something does go wrong.
  • Another point that the article fails to note is the general danger trains pose at Bartlett Ave. This is the most trespassed-upon stretch of track I have ever come across in all my years trackside. Yes, the chemicals pose a great threat, but statistically there is a greater risk that someone gets hit by a train.
  • Lastly, what about all the transport trucks crashing on Highway 401? How often does the Ministry of the Environment have to attend to clean up a spill when this happens? How many houses are build along the 401 corridor compared to the railway lines?
>>>Toxic chemicals, crude oil, radioactive material ride the rails through Toronto | Toronto Star<<<

NDP announce plans to bring back the Northlander

There will a provincial election in Ontario - we just don't know when. In the endless pre-election promises, the NDP have pledged to bring back the Northlander and improve roads in Northern Ontario.

A lot of people, myself included, would love to see the Northlander return. However, my research has shown that one of the key reasons that the train's ridership dropped was improved road infrastructure. I'm not saying that northern roads should remain poor, but people do need to understand that better roads make the train a less popular option.

NDP announce plans to bring back the Northlander | Timmins Times

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dissertation Thoughts

Two years ago, student Maddy Potts posted her top-10 tips for future generations to help them through the great rite of passage of the British undergraduate degree: the storied dissertation. Reading through them, I think there was a degree of tongue-in-cheek, but also some sound advice.

Today was my "D-Day," the day when the previous several year's work is submitted for the scrutiny of academics who have seen it all before - the good, the bad and (hopefully not too often) the ugly. I thought I would put together my own thoughts on her top-10 tips. Here goes:
  1. If your dissertation supervisor isn't a good match, get another one.

    Not a problem for me, mine was a perfect fit and was very interested in my project. However, without the occasional guidance, steer in the right direction and advice on footnotes from a good supervisor, my dissertation would not have been anywhere near as easy.

  2. People you meet will be disappointed by your topic or feign interest when you tell them about it.

    My view (perhaps a little snobbish) is that maybe you should find some other people to talk to. There is, however, a serious point here. Academic history can often seem shut off from the rest of the world and one of the great challenges is to find a way to make your research relevant to the general public. In my case, I tried to find the historical roots of a recent shift in Jewish views towards Stephen Harper's Conservative government, thus grounding my work in a subject of interest to people today.

  3. Follow-up questions are for courtesy only.

    Ditto my comments for #2.

  4. Don't ask others how much work they have done.

    Good advice. In my case, I was usually ahead, but you must set your own timetable to meet the deadline.

  5. Panicking and questioning the whole dissertation.

    Yes! Well, not really panicking, but plenty of walks to and from campus trying to mull through ideas only to come up with ten more possibilities. This is where supervisors are especially useful. In my case, I changed the title to better reflect my research findings in a coherent way. A simple title change made my whole thought-process much clearer.

  6. Much of your work will never make it into the final product.

    Incredibly true, both during research and then writing. I probably used less than 10% of my total research in the write-up (there might be a lesson about more concise research) and then had to cull over 2,000 words from the final version.

  7. Lots of printing.

    Yes, but I print a lot anyway. (If any big tech companies are reading this, if you can make some sort of tablet with the abilities of an iPad and the absolute glare-free screen of a Kindle, academics would be very happy) For archival research, I took digital photos, which I then renamed to match the archival record number. That way, I could quickly find an image of the particular document. Top tip: Adobe Bridge turned out to be a great piece of software for this work. Not only does it allow you to rename the image while you are looking at it, but you can zoom in fullscreen with a very straightfurward user interface to guide you.

  8. Your dissertation will become the core of your life.

    Partially true, but this is probably more of an issue if you aren't a workaholic like me. It was my life anyway. Biscuits should not become their own food group. If you let your diet slip, so will your work. The time spent making and eating healthy food will be repaid in better concentration and work time.

  9. Time will disappear even for the super-organized.

    This really depends on how much time you can spend during the summer working on research. In my case, I spent over three weeks doing research and then organizing the research to make it usable. Come the start of the fall term, I was ready to write and spent one day a week writing. By the end, I had over a month to spare and edit my dissertation carefully. Guilt when not working is a real problem and leads to stress and, in some cases, burnout. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a good solution to this.

  10. The finished product is a triumph and something you should be proud of.

    I must admit that I felt very little emotion when it was all over. Mind you, I was balancing a book manuscript at the same time and, while an academic dissertation and a book for a general audience are two different things, the two fed off each other a great deal. The dissertation helped with the research for my book, and the book helped with my academic writing. Am I proud of my work? Probably, but I feel that my chosen topic needs further scrutiny and I finished up wanting more, which bodes well for potential future research endeavours.
There you have it, Guardian-published advice remixed by me, just for the shear hell of it. I might even eventually write another piece on my actual dissertation topic, rather than just spouting abstract notions.

*I have perhaps jinxed the entire dissertation process. It might turn out that my work is entirely flawed, in which case please ignore all my above advice. Only time will tell.

219 Arrives in Capreol

I'm a little behind the game on this one, but 219 made it safely to Capreol earlier this month. Here is some excellent footage from Radio-Canada showing the unloading at the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre.

While the locomotive is safe, much needs to be done to restore this locomotive. Contact the museum if you can help.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

ACR Passenger Service Safe... For Now

Yesterday, the federal government announced that it was extending the passenger rail subsidy for the Sault Ste. Marie-Hearst passenger service until March 2015 in order to allow local groups and the government to better discuss the situation.

In about three months, a satisfactory solution has been reached (at least temporarily) to maintain the service. It took over two years to reach such a resolution with the ONTC!

As usual, I defer to the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains on this issue. They were campaigning before the service was put at risk and they are leading the charge to make sure trains keep rolling.

Ontera fight not over

While the future of the ONTC appears to be secure, the government's announcement of the sale of Ontera has continued to generate opposition to the plan. Other than the sale itself, the main concerns are for the valuation ($6 million sound low) and for jobs (the timeline for job security has yet to be explained).

Ontera fight not over | North Bay Nugget

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Le Québec Libéral de nouveau

Il n'y a même pas deux ans, j'écrivais de la victoire péquiste de Pauline Marois. Suite au printemps érable, il semblait que le PQ serait une bonne chose pour le Québec. Malheureusement, le gouvernement Marois a divisé le Québec avec sa Charte des Valeurs Québécoise, un modèle pour un Québec souverain et francophone.

Il y a deux ans, j'ai écrit que j'étais péquiste. A ce moment, je l'étais car je voulais plus de français au Canada et que le Québec continuait ses programmes sociaux (les plus Européens et progressifs en Amérique du Nord). Au lieu, Marois a décidé de promouvoir un Québec plein de xénophobie. La Charte n'était pas laïque. Au contraire, c'était un document pro-catholique. En interdisant les signes religieux "ostentatoires,"le PQ attaquait un Québec multiculturel, car la vaste majorité des signes "ostentatoires" ne sont pas chrétien. En même temps, la Charte protégeait le crucifix à l'Assemblée Nationale comme symbole de la patrimoine Québécoise. Oubli t'on la révolution tranquille des années 60s? La laïcité aurait dictée que le crucifix devait partir aussi.

Le résultat? Le Québec de nouveau divisé, un gouvernement Libéral majoritaire et Pauline Marois sans siège. Est-ce peut que les Québécois sont moins xénophobique que Marois croyait? Je dirais oui. En fait, il semble que les Québécois sont assez contents avec la relation entre la province et le reste du Canada en ce moment. J'appui encore l'idée de la souveraineté si le Canada continue le trajet Harper, mais j'aime aussi le privilège de pouvoir visiter une province francophone dans mon propre pays - le Canada.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Model Railways: A New Level of Total History?

Railway modellers are a strange and varied bunch, ranging from those who find it fun and a form of artistic expression (like me) to those who count every rivet and seem to never find any fun in it at all. The hobby is often branded as pedantic, but what if it was in fact a new horizon for total history?

Total history emerged in the early 20th century as the preferred historical method of the Annales School, a group of French historians who valued detailed analyses of change over time. These accounts often included microscopic detail, most notably seen in Fernand Braudel's multi-volume history of the Mediterranean, which examines everything from politics to crops. The link between total history and model railways may not be immediately apparent, but I think it is worth discussing.

I first thought of this comparison while browsing through back issues of British Railway Modelling at the National Railway Museum the other day. The cover story in the February 2014 issue featured the latest layout from the Luton Model Railway Club, a detailed and accurate representation of the "Great Train Robbery" in O Scale.

In August 1963, a group of robbers tampered with the lineside signalling near Ledmore in Buckinghamshire. With the broken signal showing danger, an approaching Royal Mail Train stopped at Bridego Bridge, where the gang was waiting. Overpowering the crew (some of whom were seriously injured), the gang made off with over £2.6 million (1963 money). The crime was well-planned and included extensive research of railway operations. After the heist, the gang split up, with members scattering around the world. Most famously, Ronnie Biggs eluded British police by hiding in South America until he returned to the UK for medical treatment in 2001. The "Great Train Robbery" shocked Britain, largely because it was an attack on the Royal Mail - a national institution - and because the train crew had been hurt. The gang's years of evading the law afterwards remain raw to this day.

With the 50th anniversary in mind, the Luton Club decided to build a diorama of the scene that was as accurate as possible. Their attention to detail is indeed incredible. For instance, their research showed that the modernization of the West Coast Main Line had seen the up fast line redone with concrete sleepers. On the layout, all the other tracks retain the wooden ones. Similarly, the partially-installed overhead electrification is accurate for August 1963. Virtually every other detail has also been carefully researched to match the night in question. The locomotive emits exhaust in a pattern accurately representing an idling diesel. The road vehicles are correct - down to both Land Rovers having the same registration plates. The Royal Mail coaches are also accurately detailed (including a great deal of interior detail), no mean feat given that the original one carrying the money was destroyed under police guard decades ago. The Robbery has become the stuff of legend and for the Club to spend a great deal of time cutting through the myth to get to the actual events is exemplary.

Is it total history? In a sense yes. The careful attention to detail would have made the Annales School proud. However, this diorama does not show change over time or have an argument. It is instead a carefully-crafted attempt to set the record straight, which is a core principle of the conscientious historian.

Railway modellers are a very picky bunch and tend to be very self-righteous (there is only one right way to do something - and naturally theirs is the right way). However, the level of controversy that this layout has generated is quite surprising. In the March 2014 issue's letters to the editor, one reader described the layout as shameful and tasteless, concluding by announcing that he had cancelled his subscription to the magazine in protest. In April 2014, other letters appeared, supporting this view, advising British Railway Modelling to never feature such layouts again and calling for a boycott of all model railway shows where the layout is on display. It's hard to tell whether this is the majority view or simply a very vocal minority, but is slightly worrying coming from a hobby which is often associated with historical research. Do these views suggest that it is somehow immoral to revisit and analyze past events? Would an accurately researched model of last summer's Lac-Mégantic derailment garner similar comments, even if it helped explain what the scene actually looked like? Is every battlefield reconstruction wrong? Does every museum displaying a photograph of a less-than-savoury scene no longer merit our patronage?

Why do people object to this model? I don't believe it glorifies the events and in our 24/7 news culture, surely it is nice to find a carefully-researched account of a crime? I honestly cannot comprehend why anyone would boycott the layout.

For those of you interesting in reading the article and seeing the accompanying photographs, you can purchase a digital back-issue of the February 2014 magazine here.

*I should probably make a distinction (and massive generalization) here between British railway modellers and North American model railroaders. In my experience, the hobby in North America is much more relaxed and more open to multiple ideas. The British fraternity tends to be far more exacting and prickly.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The ONTC Saga: It's All Over

Yesterday, the government announced that there would be an announcement about the ONTC today. There was, and today the saga is all over. Speaking in North Bay, Michael Gravelle announced that the ONTC will remain in government hands and the province plans to invest $23 million over three years to buy new buses and refurbish the rolling stock for the Polar Bear Express.

Of course, it isn't that simple. Ontera, the telecommunications division, is expected to be sold to Bell Aliant in a joint project with the government which will see about $30 million invested in infrastructure.

I wrapped up research for Call of the Northland on April 1, so I will be reopening it to take the announcement into account.

Thinking back over the past two years, this is probably the best outcome that could be expected. Unfortunately, the Northlander is gone and it is a real loss for the whole province. If a part of the ONTC had to be sold off, Ontera was probably the one that made sense. The question now is how will the ONTC be transformed to allow it to operate in a more efficient way. We need to avoid having to do this all over again in a few years.

There are, however, many unanswered questions. What about the New Deal/Port Authority Plan? How much has this saga actually cost? What restructuring will actually happen? What if an election is called? What development over the past two years actually changed the government's mind? Time will tell, provided the government remains committed to a more transparent process.

All in all, the uncertainty is over, the majority of the ONTC will remain in government hands and I would hope that most jobs are safe. I hope that the government has learned from the past two years: do your homework before you announce a divestment that won't work!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Ontario Today Talks Northern Transport

Quite by chance, I managed to catch a heads-up that Ontario Today, the CBC's lunchtime radio show, was discussing the latest cuts to transport routes in northern Ontario. Obviously, the loss of the Northlander looms large (and the uncertainty around the entire ONTC), but the potential loss of the Algoma Central passenger service operated by CN between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst is also worrying. To make matters worse, Bearskin Airlines has just announced the cancellation of several of its routes connecting the north to Ottawa.

The guest on the show was MP Charlie Angus, who has long called for better transport links in the north. Much of the discussion focused on the poor quality of northern roads, the double-standard favouring transport links in southern Ontario and the high cost of transport in the north. The discussion also asked a very interesting question: have northern and southern Ontario ever been so disconnected from each other? From a transportation perspective, based on the research for Call of the Northland, I would argue that this is indeed the worst period ever. My book becomes more relevant with every passing day.

You can listen to the show again on the Ontario Today website.

Note: I wish this were a joke, but I don't do April Fools.