Bring back the beloved passenger train

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FirbyMy recent tour of the remarkable Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, B.C., got me wondering why all of Canada cannot once again have a viable rail passenger service.

The museum contains a collection of dozens of rail cars from the past 100+ years in various states of repair. Collectively, they deliver a powerful glimpse into what life must have been like during the glory days of rail travel. Some of the partially restored cars (which show the catastrophic results of attempts to “modernize”) also provide a pretty clear sense of why passenger rail travel went into decline.

Today, Via’s passenger rail in Canada primarily serves the Ottawa-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto-Windsor corridors. It makes sense to have it concentrated there because the area’s relative population density makes it easier to get enough paying passengers to make a profit. In less dense areas – such as the sprawling prairies or even the twisting, winding interior of B.C. – finding enough riders to make a buck is a much tougher task.

Unless, that is, you market the train as a high-end product. In the West, you can take a passenger train through the mountains on the Rocky Mountaineer. Trouble is, the luxury rail service is beyond the reach of us mere commoners. The seven day/six night Canadian Rockies Highlights tour, for example, starts at $2,999 on the company’s website. Prices go up – way up – from there. It may be a fair deal for tourists, but doesn’t work so well for us locals.

I haven’t used the train a lot in my life but it seems each time I did it turned into a pleasant, and at times even memorable, experience. I remember one long ride with a co-worker from Windsor to Ottawa years ago. It was a chance to relax, catch up on reading, gaze out the window and generally chill out. It was restorative.

I also remember recently taking an old communist-era train from Berlin to Warsaw. Although the train was dated and dowdy, the ride had a magical quality to it as I chatted with my spouse and friends, ate, dozed and watched the scenery roll by outside the window.

Via’s President and CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, is pushing the idea of a revived national rail passenger service. Via is doing not too badly, running on 12,500 kilometres of track and transporting about four million passengers a year. But could it do better?

From an environmental perspective, it seems to make sense. By Via’s calculations, when a train is running with a full passenger load its carbon footprint per traveler is about 40 per cent of what it would be if they were in a car. And that same footprint is just one-tenth what it would be if that person chose to ride a plane.

Ha! You may respond – planes are faster. In fact, that’s not always true. For example, many people I know make frequent business trips between Calgary and Edmonton. Figuring the time it takes to get to the airport, park, check in, clear security, wait to board and then take a $60 taxi to downtown at the other end, you can drive to your destination faster.

Even a standard passenger train could beat a plane on that route. However, there is growing interest in exploring a high-speed version, like that those found in parts of Japan and Europe. The catch is the cost: Most recent estimates put construction costs somewhere between $2.6 and $7 billion, depending on the type of technology used. Annual operating costs of a high-speed rail line are put between $88 million and $129 million.

For a proposition like that to make sense, you need to find a lot of passengers willing to pay fares that are not far removed from airfare. Let’s face it – a modern train won’t be as cheap as bus fare.

Would you be willing to pay that much? For business travel, paying a higher fare but getting to enjoy the benefits of a modern train, with such amenities as WiFi connectivity that lets you use your time well, could actually improve productivity. At the same time, think of the stress you would spare those same employees from, not having to empty their pockets at security and getting to step off a training downtown, rather than 25 kilometres away from a city’s core.

Green. Chill. Business friendly. Maybe the renaissance of the passenger train is nigh.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Doug Firby

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with more than four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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