Whistle-stops: Getting Passenger Rail Back On Track

Taking the train across Canada to promote passenger rail can be described as a test of the loyalty of the VIA Rail supporter. I have done several national whistle-stop train tours since I became Green Party leader in 2006. And each time, we have faced new challenges.

We have been pressing for the restoration of service on the E and N Corridor Rail line and were successful in an earlier campaign to protect 70 km of essential track to keep service between Halifax and Montreal. The route is maintained, but, with service cut from 6 days a week to only 3, fewer people are taking that train.

Deciding to take the train from Vancouver to New Brunswick for the Green national convention this July gave us a chance to road-test the possibility for a national leaders’ tour by rail for the 2015 election. We did it in 2008 and in 2011. Offering national media spots on the train we had the frustrations of trying to get them internet to send their stories into networks on anything like a timely schedule. The rail tour had its ups and downs. In 2008, we did 45 whistle-stops. I was the first leader since John Diefenbaker to campaign by train. And we were actually (literally) bruised by the experience. We had sleepers and the train only stopped in most communities at the section of coach cars in economy. The walk within the train from our car to the platform was a half a kilometre. We raced back and forth nearly constantly. We all developed interesting bruise patterns on our hips from bumping back and forth against the door handles along the narrow corridors.

I still love the experience and the message. Travelling by rail, when all the other parties charter jets, reduced our carbon footprint to a tiny fraction of the other parties’ emissions. I would love to do it again. Next election, I don’t think we can take the chance. For all the challenges of a cross-country campaign, we never ran significantly behind schedule. True, in 2008, we had a Kamloops rally in the middle of the night, but it was scheduled for 2 AM and only ran a half an hour late. This time we ran between four to six hours late from Edmonton to Toronto. The most steadfast supporters stayed in the Edmonton train station from 11 pm to 2:20 AM to cheer our arrival. A handful of Manitobans waited in the Winnipeg station from 8 pm until 1:30 AM. By Toronto, we didn’t know when to tell people to expect us. The scheduled 9:30 AM train rolled in at 1:30 PM.

I am as strong a supporter of VIA Rail as ever. None of this was due to VIA’s management. It was all about who owns the tracks. When CN and CP were split and VIA Rail was created, the tracks were given to freight. The traffic signals are run by freight. Freight is moving increasingly long trains. No siding in Canada is long enough for the freight trains, so VIA is sent to the sidings to wait – sometimes for hours – to make sure freight gets to its destination. And the amount of goods on the rails, particularly fossil fuel loaded tank cars, is on the rise. Yes, the irony did occur to us, as the Green Train was slowed to a stand-still to get fossil fuels to market.

Canada has no national transportation policy. We are the only industrialized country to have no policy. As well, VIA Rail needs what Amtrak has in the US – a legislated framework. Olivia Chow introduced such a bill and with her departure to run for Toronto Mayor, it needs to be re-introduced. VIA needs a right to timely use of the tracks. Ideally, VIA needs modernized tracks solely for passenger rail use. VIA needs investment and expanded services, not the constant shrinkage of service and lay-off of staff.
So, does anyone know where I can get a hybrid bus?