Railroad trilogy 2024: Canada’s passenger rail service – past, present and future

Why a series of articles about passenger rail service in Canada? It began on a slow train to Montreal
A man with a black jacket pulling a silver carry-on suitcase walks along a paved platform with his back to the camera, apparently heading to board the rather decrepit grey passenger train parked on his left, under a pale grey sky.

This article was first published by the Halifax Examiner, as the introduction to a series of three articles about passenger rail in Canada.

Just after Christmas 2023, my spouse and I boarded a VIA Rail train in Truro, Nova Scotia, bound for Montreal, with a connection to Ottawa for a family gathering. I hadn’t been on the Ocean – the train linking Halifax with Montreal – since 1998, when my family and I needed to get to Montreal for a flight to West Africa during some vicious winter weather, when highways were closed and flights cancelled.

Apart from that rail journey to Montreal a quarter century ago, and a few train trips in Cameroon, Indonesia, Kenya and Germany over the years, I have to dig way back into childhood memories to recall train travels.

The memories that surface are fond ones.

Our parents would put us kids on the train in Halifax, and we’d ride the rails to Oxford and Amherst, where our grandparents would pick us up. I am guessing our parents felt some relief as our train pulled away from the Halifax station, knowing we were safe on board, that they’d been spared the drive on what were then crowded and narrow two-lane highways, and they were in for a couple of weeks’ reprieve from loud, rambunctious children in the house.

As for us kids, we loved those train trips. They were adventures. We kept our noses to the windows, gazing at the province flashing by – as we skirted Bedford Basin, then one beautiful lake after another, and occasionally outpaced cars beside us on stretches where the tracks run parallel to Highway 2. We held our breaths (at least I did) on narrow rail bridges over deep gullies, as we moved towards and then through the magnificent Wentworth Valley.

All of which is to say, I was more than a little chuffed to be heading out on that same train track again at the end of 2023, this time as a much, much older person.

Several friends and family members asked why on earth we would opt for that long, 30.5-hour (at best) train trip to Ottawa when we could take a 1.5-hour flight from Halifax, or drive the distance in just over 13 hours, especially given that the train – with a sleeper – cost more than $1,000 per person.

I pondered that myself.

First, there’s this thing that Swedish speakers, inspired by climate champion Greta Thunberg, call “flygskam” – or “flight shame.” It’s the guilt one feels in an aircraft spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in the midst of the climate emergency. According to the European Union, “if global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.”

In contrast, rail transport, is among “the most energy-efficient and lowest-emitting transport modes,” according to the International Energy Agency. So that appealed to me, even if I would learn later that this applies to modern and efficient trains carrying lots of passengers, and not necessarily to Canada’s antiquated long-distance diesel-powered trains.

In addition to the climate considerations, I also just don’t like flying any more. Maybe it’s my age, but for whatever reason I am increasingly fearful in the air, suspicious about the safety of the aircraft, ever more impatient with long security line-ups and body scanners and searches.

Third, I am wary – even terrified – of winter driving, especially in blizzards, and I’ve white-knuckled my way through too many of those. Nor do we have a car I really trust to get us to Ottawa without a problem.

So, for the first time in a very long time, I chose the train. I’m glad we did.

It was a back-to-the-future experience – in the same train cars I suspect I rode as a kid. I was bowled over by the courteous service from the VIA Rail crew on-board (and also the VIA reservation agents I spoke to on the phone when I booked the trip) that reminded me of a time – decades ago – before neo-liberalism took over. Back before so many public corporations and services were privatized, before passengers somehow became “customers,” and everything from support service to cleaning was outsourced to the lowest bidder, often the cheapest, most exploitive employer. The VIA Rail employees seemed genuinely happy to be looking after passengers, which they did as consummate and caring professionals.

But we hadn’t even boarded the Ocean in Truro when we started to hear horror tales about it. A security person on the platform decided that for some reason known only to him, it would be a good idea to tell a bunch of passengers that the train was always late, and had been known to back up all the way from New Brunswick when locomotives stopped working, and about a recent accident at a crossing that meant passengers had to take a bus. This didn’t sound promising at all.

And no amount of good food and good service from friendly VIA Rail staff could mask the reality that the Ocean is plagued by problems.

There were long delays on the rails, a long stretch of poor tracks in northern New Brunswick where the online VIA trip tracker informed us we were mostly going 23 kilometres an hour, and I wondered how sound those ancient train cars could really be. When I asked some of the VIA crew members about the state of the tracks and the trains themselves, which seemed not to have changed in half a century, they hinted at enormous risks facing passenger rail in our country.

Related: Federal transport plan fails to give VIA what it needs to succeed

This raised so many questions. How had we gone from a country that ostensibly existed only because of its transcontinental railway – at least that was the myth perpetuated in songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” – to not having a single passenger train that crossed from one coast to another? Why was Canadian National sold off in 1995? And why was VIA Rail created in 1977 as a Crown corporation? Why did VIA Rail trains that transported people have to yield to Canadian National and Canadian Pacific freight trains? When and how had passenger train service in Canada become so diminished, and what are the prospects for VIA Rail and affordable public passenger rail transport in Canada? When other countries around the world are busy developing and expanding high-speed publicly-funded rail networks, why are Canada’s passenger trains so few, so old, and so damn slow?

Ultra-modern white electric train locomotive with headlights on at modern train platform, and the silhouette of a man wearing train conductor uniform standing on the platform beside the train. Credit: Rikku Sama on Unsplash

Modern high-speed electric train at a station in Japan. Credit: Rikku Sama on Unsplash

Back home in Nova Scotia, I set out to find people who could answer some of those questions.

A series of articles that looks at the past, present and future of Atlantic Canada’s and national passenger rail service is the result of those conversations.

The first in the series looks at the state of passenger rail in Nova Scotia and VIA Rail’s train that runs between Montreal and Halifax.

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