The crowd surrounding the railway official was starting to sound like a mob. It wasn’t yet braying for blood, but the shouts were growing hostile.
“Can you guarantee it?” a ringleader demanded in shrill tones when the official tried to assure the hundred or so passengers stuck in the Little Rock station that buses would soon arrive to fetch and carry them on their way.
“Can you guarantee it? Can you guarantee it?”
The official could not and his response that he had no power to control the buses did not seem to appease the irate woman, or her followers. Fortunately, before the scene turned too ugly, a fresh supply of coffee was delivered, along with boxes of doughnuts and piles of McSomething-or-others to eat.
With caffeine levels raised and blood-sugar lowered, the crowd settled down again to wait and contented itself with disgruntled mutterings.
The trouble had begun several hours earlier. The passengers had mostly been asleep when the southbound Amtrak train out of Chicago started having electrical problems when it reached Arkansas. One man reported seeing an explosive shower of sparks on the outside of the train and said he’d been in the army, so he knew it meant no good.
Few of the people onboard were aware that a lack of lights indicated a greater problem until they were asked to evacuate the coaches with all of their luggage when the train limped into Little Rock at a very dark 5 a.m. There they were told that every car was suffering power shortages that were defying all attempts at repair.
Officials decided it would be better to arrange alternate transportation rather than make the passengers endure a long trip without working lights, ventilation or toilets. Instead, the conductors and other railway officials had to endure numerous and prolonged complaints, verging at times on abuse, even though it was unclear how any of them were at fault for what was happening.
That kind of thing is sadly common, not just in the United States, but also in Canada and anywhere else a vital public service breaks down.
What made this situation remarkable from a Canadian perspective is that after all the delays, all the waiting, all the hours spent on buses driving all the way from Little Rock, Ark., to Forth Worth, Texas, most if not all of the passengers from the stricken train arrived at their final destinations right on time.
That would be unimaginable in Canada, where Via Rail trains routinely fall behind schedule for the flimsiest of reasons — often because they have been delegated to the lowest rank of priority — and they hardly ever manage to make up the time.
It’s sad to consider that when the Americans — those despisers of all things that smack of socialism — decided to revive their languishing passenger rail service, they looked north to Canada to find their model. They would not do that now.
Over the past couple of decades, while Amtrak was growing into an efficient and inexpensive people-mover — one that is easily accommodating a recent doubling of ridership caused by the public’s growing aversion to flying — Via Rail went into a steep decline.
Short-sighted federal governments starved it for funds in what may as well have been an intentional policy to kill Canada’s passenger rail system. Prices have skyrocketed, vital routes have been cut and daily service has been eliminated from most parts of the country.
The excuses always given have to do with how big Canada is, but somehow Amtrak is able to cover the entire continental U.S. from top to bottom in a spiderweb of routes while Via Rail has to maintain only one, maybe two lines from coast to coast running for the most part in the heavily populated 100-kilometer-wide corridor north of the United States border.
It should be easy, but somehow Canada finds the task impossible. Actually, it’s Ottawa that chooses to find it impossible and as much as the country needs a vastly improved Via Rail, it’s unlikely any government — whether Liberal or Reformed Conservative — will look south to copy the U.S.A.’s admirable passenger railway model.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.