What future for passenger trains in the country?
Kensington Station, Isle of Prince Edward, in 1914
Often seen as a romantic and luxurious means of transportation, the train has been overtaken by the airplane and the automobile over the past century in Canada. However, if we devote the necessary investments and infrastructure to it, this means of transport could prove to be greener and less expensive, believes a specialist, Anthony Perl.
Passenger trains cost less, are more efficient and harm the environment less, he says.
Professor at Simon Fraser University and member of VIA Rail's board of directors from 2008 to 2012, Anthony Perl indicates that the investments required would however be quite significant.
Right now, he points out, the train won't get you where you want to go when you want to get there, because neither budgets nor routes allow it. And there are no fast trains in Canada. In Europe and elsewhere, he notes, it was the high-speed train that allowed this industry to become competitive.
In Canada, the golden age of the train took place 100 years ago.
It was a time when railway companies competed to offer the most prestigious first class travel.
In 1906, the Globe and Mail described the Muskoka Express as a flying palace. This train traveled back and forth between Toronto and the cottage country north of the city.
Local train operators were also innovative. In the early 20th century, several companies operated commuter trains between Hamilton, Toronto and surrounding towns. Much of the infrastructure was electric, notes Ryan Katz-Rosene, a University of Ottawa professor who studies train infrastructure and climate change.
If we had kept this model, he says, we would now be living in another universe where it would have been easier to decarbonize.
However, governments have preferred to invest in highways. The automobile thus became the queen of means of transport.
The number of train passengers began to fall in the 1920s. About 51 million people took the train each year at that time, according to data from the Globe and Mail. Five years later, the train had already lost 10 million of those passengers.
People appreciated the freedom that driving a car provided. And after World War II, low gas prices drove the nail into the train's coffin, according to Transport Action Canada activist Harry Gow.
People, he says, forgot the total cost of a vehicle – amortization of the loan, insurance and maintenance – to calculate only the cost of gasoline. So they thought it was cheaper than the train.
The automobile has benefited from the support of governments. In 1946, Ottawa thus passed a special law to encourage the construction of roads in the provinces.
However, the small communities continued to demand passenger trains. And that's when VIA Rail pulled into the station.
VIA Rail was created as a Crown corporation in 1977. But it didn't take long before successive governments, Liberals and Conservatives, imposed cuts on the corporation. In 1989, Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard imposed $1 billion cuts over five years to the budget of VIA Rail, which was forced to abandon routes across the country.
Minister of Transport from 1997 to 2003, David Collenette supported the train, but this feeling was not generalized, he says.
People were like, “People are going to drive or fly, so we can shut down that service, we can shut down that road.” And unfortunately, we are now trying to catch up.
While he campaigned for Ottawa to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in VIA Rail during his mandate, David Collenette regrets that most of this money went to maintenance and repairs rather than improving services.
The privatization of Canadian National in 1995 did not help VIA's cause, he recalls. Since CN bought the railway cars and tracks, it found itself in a monopoly situation, which forced VIA Rail to use its rail network.
C This explains the delays of VIA trains, which often have to wait until CN trains have finished passing to be able to use the tracks. Result: 72% of VIA Rail trains are not on time.
Associate Professor at the University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure, Shoshanna Saxe believes that the train is an essential part of the transportation landscape in the country. Its revival, however, she says, will take time and money.
Under the right conditions, the train can carry large numbers of people over long distances. close and far, quickly and efficiently, comfortably and with very little pollution, she summarizes.
However, the future of passenger rail in the country is far from guaranteed.
Ms Saxe explains that while a train can always change direction, it is however like maneuvering a big ship: it takes a big push and it's difficult.
We won't build a European-style system in a year, but the only way to solve the problem is to start solving it.
With information from Philip Drost and from Craig Desson