A screenshot from a presentation shows a graphic representation of a mauve or purplish mountain landscape with the dark pointed tops of what look like spruce or fir trees in the foreground, under a blue sky. In the upper right corner in white text are the words "Forestry For The Future" beside a stylized white skeletal tree logo, and in the bottom left, in green text the same words, over white text saying, Telling Our Story.

This article was originally published by the Halifax Examiner, but because Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram are blocking / censoring media articles in Canada, alas, the Halifax Examiner is no longer able to share its articles on these (anti-)social media platforms. Thus, if my articles are to be shared on Meta platforms, I have to post them from my own website, as I am this commentary from March 12, 2024. 

It’s been nearly nine months since Mark Zuckerberg’s social media megalith Meta began blocking all news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada – a premature and bullying reaction to the new Online News Act, which hadn’t even come into effect at that point.

Because of Meta’s boycott of all things news, I decided to (mostly) boycott all things Meta. Since last summer, I’ve avoided posting or commenting on Facebook or Instagram. However, I do still lurk to see what is happening out there in Meta-land. For the most part, it’s predictably and depressingly anti-social, sowing division and spreading disinformation.

But there are also important social media accounts run by concerned and investigative citizens keeping tabs on the environment, our forests, and how well our governments are protecting them, and tackling the climate crisis.

So I do occasionally check my feeds, now bereft of fact-checked media articles.

Alas, there’s no shortage of propaganda. My social media feed is riddled with infuriating ads and campaigns peddling all manner of deceitful bunkum, trying to greenwash the fossil fuel sector and other extractive industries, claiming they are working to solve the climate crisis, when many are exacerbating it.

For the past few weeks, the number two item on my feed every time I’ve checked has been a sponsored post from something called “Forestry For The Future.” After weeks of trying to just ignore them, I finally decided it was time to take a look at what is behind these ads. Continue reading Dissecting forestry industry’s deceptive PR propaganda campaign

The Forest Products Association of Canada has been filling social media with its ‘Forestry For The Future’ push poll – users beware.

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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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Grandiose facade of a concrete building, with pillars and empty place where a clock may once have been. The sign "VIA Rail Canada" with the yellow logo and red maple leaf is suspended between two columns, and construction is ongoing, as scaffolding is in place between the columns. Credit: Joan Baxter

This article, the first of a three-part series on passenger rail in Canada, was originally published by the Halifax Examiner. The introduction is here.

It’s a Friday morning, which means the Ocean – VIA Rail’s thrice-weekly passenger train to Montreal – is sitting on the tracks at the VIA station in Halifax, almost ready for boarding.

But I’m not here today to take the train; I’m here to talk trains with Tim Hayman.

Hayman is a board member of the citizen transportation advocacy group Transport Action Canada and president of its regional chapter, Transport Action Atlantic. He’s met me in the elegant and spacious VIA Rail station, a grandiose hall adjoining the once-grand Nova Scotian Hotel, now owned by Westin.

Both were built by Canadian National Railways in the late 1920s. CNR (now CN) was founded as a Crown corporation in 1919, bringing under one roof several railways previously owned by the government, and others the government acquired after they went bankrupt.

As Hayman and I speak, passengers trickle in with their luggage, ready to board the Ocean, scheduled to depart for Montreal at 1pm

A blue screen mounted in the upper corner of a building, flanked by a stylized old-fashioned lamp on the right, and upper casement doors windows on the left, showing Departures for VIA Rail trains from Halifax, namely a single train to Montreal at 13 hours, shown "on time"

At the Halifax VIA Rail station, three times a week the departure screen shows the Ocean train leaving for Montreal at 13h. Credit: Joan Baxter

Hayman tells me he wishes he were getting on the train, as he always does, no matter how many times he’s made the Ocean journey over the years.

And he’s made it a lot.

A smiling man with short dark hair, wearing a black thigh-length jacket and a red and white scarf, blue jeans and sneakers, stands with his hands in his jacket pockets in front of a wooden desk with the words "The Ocean" on it, and underneath an overhead sign saying "VIA Train 15, Montréal.

Tim Hayman at the Ocean departure gate in Halifax VIA Rail station. Credit: Joan Baxter

Hayman documents his many trips in a colourful and fascinating “Tim’s train travels” blog that tells tales – some of them harrowing – about the ups and downs, the joys and also the woes, the delays and major disruptions that are part of the experience of travelling a train as antiquated as the Ocean, and running on tracks where VIA trains have to cede priority to massive freight trains owned by CN, which owns the tracks.

Even with all the pitfalls Hayman details in his blog, he loves the Ocean.

And he is happy to count the ways.

Continue reading The Ocean: VIA Rail’s little old train that hopes it can

There was a time when Atlantic Canada had wonderful passenger rail service – today, all that’s left is one problem-plagued slow train between Halifax and Montreal

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Large sign with dark blue background, and VIA in yellow letters, then a red maple leaf, and underneath the words "VIA Rail Canada" in white lettering. Behind the sign, a red brick building and a very blue sky. A white seagull sits atop the sign.

In this second article in a series about passenger train service in Canada – past, present and future – we look at just how dramatically passenger rail service has been diminished, the myriad problems VIA Rail faces, and at the efforts by some parliamentarians to support and protect the Crown corporation responsible for passenger rail service in the country. Part 1 is available here. This article was first published by the Halifax Examiner.

If Green Party leader Elizabeth May had her way, VIA Rail would have its very own legislation, something the Crown corporation has not had since its creation in 1977.

A VIA Rail Act, she says, would enable the Crown corporation to fulfil its mandate to provide modern safe, efficient, climate-friendly and reliable passenger rail service in Canada.

That’s why, in 2022, May tabled Bill C-326 – the VIA Rail Act – that she hoped would accomplish just that

Alas, as a private members’ bill, the VIA Rail Act didn’t go anywhere after first reading, and is still languishing on the table.

But May hasn’t given up hope for improved and expanded passenger rail in Canada, as she says in a phone interview from her home in British Columbia. Continue reading Trying to give VIA Rail a chance

Parliamentarians have tried to protect and improve rail passenger service in Canada

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Concrete facade of an imposing building, looking a little worse for wear, with a Canadian flag flying to the left of the columns and entrance to the building, over which there is a blue sign with the yellow logo of VIA Rail and its red maple leaf.

This, the third and final article looking at passenger rail service in Canada, was originally published by the Halifax Examiner. It delves into the decision by the federal government to privatize the most lucrative VIA Rail route in Ontario and Quebec, and what this could mean for passenger rail service in the rest of the country. The first two articles are available here and here .

On March 9, 2022, Omar Alghabra, then Canada’s transport minister, announced that the federal government was about to privatize the country’s busiest passenger rail corridor between Windsor, Ontario, and Quebec City.

Of course that is not quite the way Transport Canada worded the surprise announcement in its press release full of doublespeak, under this deceptively benign headline: “Government of Canada launches the next phase in the procurement process of High Frequency Rail.”

The word “privatize” is nowhere to be found in the press release, even though it clearly states that the government of Canada was launching a “Request for Expressions of Interest” from “industry” on the High Frequency Rail (HFR) project, to allow the government to “seek feedback from experienced private sector companies to help shape” the HFR project.

Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of the press release, Transport Canada gets around to mentioning the Crown corporation, VIA Rail, and its employees, which it says “are central to the success of High Frequency Rail and will continue to play a key role across Canada as our national passenger rail provider.”

That March 2022 announcement made one thing very clear: the plans for the future of VIA Rail’s passenger rail service had changed.

Not just changed, but really changed.

Instead of simply moving ahead with the “High Frequency Rail project” in VIA Rail’s Windsor-Quebec City corridor, which would “offer a faster, more frequent, accessible and sustainable rail service,” the federal government was now planning to privatize that chunk of the VIA Rail passenger service.

The high frequency rail project – not to be confused with high speed rail (HSR) for which there are no plans in Canada – had been in the works since VIA Rail first proposed it in 2016. It would involve some new tracks exclusively for VIA Rail’s use and improved tracks elsewhere to allow passenger trains to move at good speeds without ceding way to CN freight trains. It would also include new trains for that corridor.

In addition, VIA Rail had been hoping for federal funding so it could replace its antiquated equipment on its long-distance routes – the Ocean train between Montreal and Halifax, and the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver.

All of this – the HFR project and the new equipment for long-distance trains – would be managed by VIA Rail, greatly improving its passenger rail service and securing its future as a crucial public service.

At least that had been the plan before March 2022.

Continue reading Privatization ahead for VIA’s most travelled route

Pleas for the federal government to save VIA Rail long-distance passenger trains linking Montreal and Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver

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