Public transport for this millennium

Michael Johansen
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Blue water sloshes beneath your bare bottom. You shrink from the drops that leap out to touch your skin. They're coldly sterile, but still disgusting.
You're on a long bus ride from somewhere to almost anywhere else and you have to use the bathroom. The bus has just bounced over some bumps or swayed around a corner. You brace yourself against the walls and hope the waters soon settle down.
It's one of those oddly unique experiences shared by millions of Canadians over many decades. As uncomfortable and tedious as bus travel can be, it has long been popular because it was the cheapest way to get around this vast country.
Lately, buses have become a little more expensive, but they've also become more comfortable, less tedious (many are equipped with televisions) and cleaner - both in terms of toilets and exhaust. However, whether it's because flying between major cities is now cheaper than staying on the ground, or because more people are driving more cars than ever before, buses have also become less well-used, and the service is going the way of the country's passenger railway.
As ridership drops, bus companies have begun cutting routes that don't make enough money.
Soon, anyone living in a large number of small towns in Saskatchewan will be left completely on their own to find their way around, since ridership to and from their somewhat-remote communities has dropped by more than half. But it's not just a rural problem. Larger places, such as the Ontario towns of Midland and Parry Sound, have been facing the same loss for the same reason.
Since in Canada rural or long-distance buses are not considered a necessary public service, they can be eliminated with impunity. If, however, provincial and federal governments started to treat buses like a public service, they could become part of a national transportation system. A properly designed and run network could result in increasing ridership, take cars off the overcrowded highways, get passengers out of airline seats and possibly even help to revive rural Canada.
Working models are quite common. They can be seen in any city, such as Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, that combines rail and bus transit. A great large-scale model exists south of the border. The United States once looked north to learn how to create an efficient and public passenger railway. The student learned fast, and with Amtrak the Americans went far beyond their Canadian teachers.
While Via Rail has been systematically dismantled, Amtrak has been turned into an efficient nationwide public transportation service, one that seamlessly integrates buses with trains.
Canada can catch up and build a comparable service, not in spite of the vast distances between towns and cities, but because of them. To do it properly would mean rebuilding abandoned lines (including the old Newfoundland Railway, but on standard gauge this time), adding new rolling stock, reinstating passenger service to closed-down stations and feeder spur lines, and purchasing a fleet of buses that can pick up passengers at spots near their homes and bring them directly to the railways. That would mean, for example, that Winnipeg's remote new bus terminal should be moved away from the airport and back downtown to be near Union Station.
Thousands of Canadians still use the country's remaining buses and trains for both short commutes and long-distance travel. Thousands more would use them if they ran reasonably frequently and on time - and if, like Amtrak customers and transit riders, Via passengers could buy a single convenient ticket that would take them the quickest way possible overland by bus and train from almost anywhere in Canada to almost anywhere else in Canada.
A national transportation policy that could bring such a system to life could not only reduce the carbon dioxide produced by cars and airplanes, but it could also give a boost to Canadian manufacturers of train cars, buses and steel.
The money to build a proper system is clearly available. If the Canadian economy can come up with more than a billion dollars just to pay for security at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the cash can be found to supply Canadian citizens with the modern transport they need.

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

Organizations: Amtrak, Via Rail, Newfoundland Railway

Geographic location: Canada, Saskatchewan, Ontario Midland Parry Sound Calgary Toronto Montreal United States Vancouver Island Winnipeg Labrador

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