Long, cold wait for a slow train

Michael Johansen
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My breath hung for a moment as a white mist in the frosty air before wafting over the shiny, empty railway tracks and dissipating into the night.
It was two o'clock in the morning and the Vancouver-bound Via Rail train (the Canadian, they call it with diminishing pride) was due to arrive at the small station in Parry Sound (a town towards the north of Ontario that was once a major railway hub) in three-quarters of an hour.
Earlier in the day, a Via official had assured me over the phone that the old station - one of the finest examples of railway architecture in Canada - boasted a comfortably heated waiting room. It certainly had that, with a long wooden bench that follows a semi-circle of high southern windows, but it was not available for the use of train passengers like myself. Both entrance doors were firmly barred, leaving me to wait alone in the dark cold for a train that would finally pull up more than 15 minutes late.
The locked waiting room was a surprise, but the train's tardiness was not. Via Rail has long had a reputation for treating its schedule as a vague approximation, and the company has done nothing to rectify the problem - quite the opposite. At one time, passenger trains had some degree of priority over freight trains, but now they have none at all - the people tasked with running the service gave it up without a fight, inconveniencing not only the passengers, but their train crew as well.
What that means is that a conductor can announce arrival at a destination within five minutes, advising departing passengers to be ready (as one did just outside of Melville, Sask.), only to have his words turn into a lie when the train suddenly got sidelined for more than an hour to let one freight train after another pass by.
Chronic lateness is not the only problem Via suffers because of poor management. Years of funding cuts by successive federal governments (starting with Brian Mulroney, who was laughably named Canada's most environmental prime minister) have reduced what was once one of the finest passenger rail services in the world to a pathetic shadow of its former self.
Every decision, big or small, made over the past couple of decades seems intended to discourage people from taking trains by making them as inconvenient as possible. First the smaller feeder lines, like the one connecting to the Newfoundland ferry at North Sydney, were eliminated forever. Then major routes, like the ones to Prince Rupert, B.C. and between Calgary and Edmonton, followed them into oblivion.
Now, Canada no longer has a daily train across the country, and the service that is left is being further starved of resources.
Conductors on both legs of the pre-Christmas Toronto-to-Vancouver run complained they tried to convince their superiors to add a third second-class coach, since the two they had could only fit 120 passengers and Via had sold more than 130 tickets. Their pleas were met with threats to suspend them from their jobs if they would not keep quiet. As a result, they were forced to seat passengers, including whole families with small children, in the unheated and inadequate observation car. There was nowhere else for them to go.
Unfortunately, the oil-addicted minority government in Ottawa likely has no intention of reversing Via Rail's downward spiral, even though an investment in Canada's rail service, both passenger and freight, could help take traffic off the country's increasingly over-loaded highway system and so help bring the nation's ballooning greenhouse gas emissions under control.
However, as long as the federal government's raison d'etre remains the exploitation, sale and burning of Alberta's tarsands, it will have no interest in providing Canadians with a clean and efficient public service like Via Rail should be.

Michael Johansen has gone into travel mode. For the next few months, he'll be writing from everywhere between Labrador and Vancouver Island and Tierra del Fuego.

Organizations: Via Rail

Geographic location: Canada, Vancouver Island, Parry Sound Ontario Newfoundland Melville Sask. North Sydney Prince Rupert Calgary Edmonton Ottawa Alberta Tierra del Fuego

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