NO reason why Via Rail can't have modern equipment such as that used in Europe.

NO reason why Via Rail can't have modern equipment such as that used in Europe.

Better passenger rail – now that’s the ticket

Terrace B.C. writer urges investment in railways, pointing to the travel and success of that mode of travel in Europe.

Sitting at the end of Kalum Street beside the railway right of way, the George Little House serves as a kind of railway station cum museum, much like the passenger trains that run through it. Let’s face it – those cars are old and pretty worn out.

In the early 1970s, Pierre Berton wrote a pair of stirring books about the development of Canada’s first continental railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Passenger service was critical, part of Canada’s plan to settle the West with European immigrants.

Coming less than half a decade after Canada’s centennial year, the books (and TV miniseries) were a celebration of Canada’s past and a kind of nationalist propaganda meant to make Canadians proud of our heritage and of our potential for the future.

Even the fact that the Conservative prime minister John A. Macdonald was forced to resign over bribery charges related to the first railway’s construction did not, a century later, diminish much the Canadian pride in our first century of independence and unity, fostered largely by the infrastructural integration the railway initially provided.

Given the essential benefits of railway access to expansion in Canada’s West, another venture, The Grand Trunk Railway Company, began expanding westward by merging with other railways, then raising financing to upgrade their growing system. At Confederation the GTR was the world’s largest railway system, but confined to the East. They set up a subsidiary, the Grand Trunk Pacific, whose line was completed in 1914.

This new expanded railway ran (and runs) down the Skeena Valley to Prince Rupert, where Charles Hays (who died on the Titanic in 1912) had hatched his grandiose plans to turn the sleepy  port into another Vancouver. The Grand Trunk Railway went bankrupt in 1919, and its assets were placed under Canadian National Railways in 1923.

(Television fans of Downton Abbey may recall how Lord Robert Grantham lost his wife’s fortune by investing in the Grand Trunk Railway.)

Both these massive railways received huge subsidies and loans from various Canadian governments. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was always a private venture, but without huge government investment and grants of land it would never have been built. The Canadian National Railway Company was owned by the Canadian government until it privatized the assets in 1995.

Both are immensely profitable. One stock analyst terms railroads “forever assets” that will be cranking out profits and dividends for decades to come. Over the past decade CP has raised its dividend an average of 10.4 per cent a year; CN raised its at about 17.7 per cent per year over the same period.

Meanwhile, what about passengers? VIA Rail is a federal crown corporation mandated by the government to offer intercity rail services. However, 98 per cent of the track it uses is owned and maintained by other railway companies. Here in the Skeena corridor CN owns the line.

Because freight trains seem to become ever longer, many of them do not fit onto sidings. Thus, when any conflict arises between use of the track by passenger traffic and freight traffic, freight always wins. Passengers who normally may love using the train must suffer long waits on sidings while freight traffic uses the line.

Ignoring the fact that these railways owe their very existence to extensive subsidies from government, rabid fans of so-called private enterprise often decry the “inefficient,” money-losing passenger service. In 2012 the Conservative government was considering proposals for “significant reductions in service,” and various privatization plans.

That Canada remains reluctant to provide world-class passenger rail service seems particularly ironic when Bombardier corporation, recipient of more than $2 billion in Canadian federal subsidies, routinely builds passenger trains for European companies. The most recent order is worth about $244 million for a German network. If you’ve ever traveled on German passenger trains, you’ll realize how fabulously efficient and comfortable they are.

Last year Elizabeth May addressed VIA Rail’s problems in parliament, noting how “we never hear…talk about subsidies to our highways,” and when governments repair roads that trucking companies routinely wear out, we consider it “investment.” Let’s invest in passenger rail again, instead of being the little engine that can’t.

Retired English teach Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nurse Vicki Niemi administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Joyce, 88, on Mar. 23, 2020 at the Terrace Sportsplex. All adults in Terrace are now eligible to register for a COVID-19 vaccination. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
All adults in Terrace can now register for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment

Community members can register by calling 833-838-2323 or visiting getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca

April 2020 to March 2021 was the second wettest year on record since at least 1969, according to Environment Canada. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
VIDEO: Terrace records wettest spell in over a half-century

Terrace saw close to 1,500 millimetres of precipitation between April 2020 and March 2021

Terrace fire department responded to a call from Skeena Saw Mills at the early hours of Friday morning. (Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)
UPDATE: Fire crews respond to early morning incident at Skeena Sawmills

No injuries were reported as mill workers immediately alerted the fire department after seeing smoke

Terrace Tim Hortons on Keith Ave. experienced a fire during the morning of April 4, 2021. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
Nature of Tim Hortons fire made it difficult to detect: Deputy fire chief

Fire likely burned undetected inside a wall, resulting in extensive damage

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

Most Read