Sunday, February 14, 2016

Our Piece of Train Going Off the Rails would be Crazy

Railways symbolize many things in our culture
Railways play a large role in our civilization. Historically, a rail line made Canada’s confederation 149 years ago possible and durable. Trains loom large in popular culture, as a setting for murder mysteries, thrillers, romances, even a symbol of fantastical future cities. At the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC in 2010, I watched two of the major guests, Ozzy Osbourne and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), perform a mash-up of their respective chart-topping hits “Crazy Train” and “Peace Train”. Despite coming from wildly different music genres and different decades, both wistful songs about a war-free future use trains as a metaphor for society moving forward together.
Two singers, one crazy peace train.
For a young child in eastern Ontario, the train was a convenient way for me to visit grandparents in Toronto or Montreal. Two decades later, my wife and I honeymooned by rail across Canada, Vancouver to Halifax, thanks to my mother’s gift of a VIA pass. Through wide coach windows we viewed amazing sights like the Rockies’ Pyramid Falls, and Quebec City’s night skyline while refueling at Lévis across the St. Lawrence. At the time, the main passenger line passed through Barrie but did not stop here, but we gazed upon the old, run-down Allandale station as we rolled around Kempenfelt Bay and south to Toronto.
An amazing view from the train refeulling yard in Lévis
Rail also has economic significance, as the most energy-efficient way to ship freight or people across land, requiring far less space and energy than roads. Due to our society’s massive open and hidden road subsidies, rail travel and freight don’t seem as price competitive as they should, but there are still instances where they win out; on a level playing field, they win hands-down.
Sadly, rail struggles to survive in our car- and truck-obsessed society; every step forward brings a step back. While big cities add subways or LRT for transit, historic lines linking small communities are decommissioned or torn up.
Soon KW's riders will fly on the Ion.
When CPR dropped the line running up through Barrie to parts north, Barrie’s council made the stunningly uncharacteristic forward-looking decision to purchase the tracks between Newmarket and Utopia (Collingwood owning the track from there). Somehow the automobile-serving, sprawl-happy council of the day found the wisdom, funds and courage to preserve the tracks in the hope of future restoration of passenger rail and to give our industrial lands advantageous rail freight access.
The passenger dream came true; GO trains returned in 2007 and keep expanding, bringing trains back to Allandale and moving ever-increasing numbers of people off our crowded roadways and into comfortable coach seats, with talk of electrifying the line in the next decade. But the freight side has not fared so well, to the point that Collingwood decommissioned their branch in 2011 (although parts of it seem open to temporary use) and Barrie now faces questions about how to finance the lines connecting our industrial lands, crucial wealth creators, to rail freight.
It will be a horrible shame if Council can’t find a way to keep these tracks viable. There is no question, in a world committed to sustainability and reversing climate change, that we must become a nation based on walkable communities linked by rail transit, with personal vehicle use a distant second choice. Getting there will be swifter, smoother and cheaper if we re-use existing historical infrastructure instead of starting all over. Given where we must go, it would indeed be crazy for our piece of train to go off the rails now.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "Not the time to derail our railways"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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