Rail has been in decline when it should be strengthened

In many ways rail built this country and serves as a cornerstone of our national unity. Pierre Burton’s books, ‘The National Dream’ and ‘The Last Spike,’ as well as Gordon Lightfoot’s famous Railroad Trilogy of songs speak to the political and cultural significance of rail.

 An important part of our past, rail should be considered important today and integral to our future economic well-being as well.  Yet, with layoffs and schedule reductions at VIA, a hostile takeover and subsequent lockout of employees at CP, the looming divestment of Ontario Northland, and the continuing aftershocks of the privatization of CN  almost 20 years later, the future of rail in Canada is anything but certain.

The shame is that this makes little economic sense.  What balances the books one year, handcuffs the future.  Whether moving people or goods, trains are affordable, reliable and offer an environmentally friendly compliment to trucks, buses, planes and cars.

In Northeastern Ontario the ONR has a strong, positive effect on communities it runs through. That railway’s own study reports for every job tied directly to rail there is another that exists because of business in the region.  Their ability to move freight is especially important for mining, forestry, sawmills and wood products, and sends a strong message that Northern Ontario is a good place to do business.  That said, the importance of rail extends to many parts of Canada.

For all our history, it is surprising that Canada is the only G-8 country without high speed rail.  In the last 40 years we have seen numerous studies about the benefit high-speed rail would bring to the Windsor - Quebec City corridor, but there has been no action. The United States has committed $8 billion to their high-speed infrastructure.  If Canada were to complete a high-speed Windsor to Quebec City line it could join easily with the Detroit to Chicago line and connect 30 million people and 5 major cities.

My colleague Brian Masse (NDP MP for Windsor-West) is leading a campaign that calls on the government to make a solid financial commitment to high speed rail.  Even if we are only able to achieve faster trains we will be creating a better climate for business. Developing this infrastructure would create jobs and represents the kind of enduring investment that makes sense when spending public dollars.  But there is little evidence the government is open to rail on this or any front.

VIA Rail’s recent layoffs and reduction in schedule show how the government’s austerity measures are informing decisions in that crown corporation.  The stripped down service will offer less options for travelers – especially tourists and handcuffs communities like Hornepayne and Chapleau that have no bus service to fall back on.  The drop in tourism dollars will ripple through the communities VIA serves and the multiplier effect of rail jobs will work in a reverse fashion. 

None of these trends need to be accepted as matter of fact and there are many advocates that are lobbying for a greater role for rail in Canada.  Locally I have met with First Nations, municipal representatives, and the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains who are trying to return the Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie route.  These advocates point to the benefit for the tourist economy and use the many lodges served by the Algoma Central Railway as examples of the kind of enterprises that can flourish with passenger service.  Surely this is the kind of initiative that all levels of government should be looking to support.