Opinion: The importance of our trains, then and now

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By Tom Sheppard

One person who wrote after last week's column about the train from Halifax to Montreal said that he loved travelling by train but thought that tickets had been priced beyond reach.

A round-trip ticket for one on that route will cost around $300, providing you travel coach class. You could leave Halifax at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning and arrive in Montreal the next morning at 9:15, returning, say, the next Sunday. That trip assumes that you will sit up, but the seats are comfortable. If you wanted cabin accommodations with a bed both ways, in order to rest your weary head, the price would be closer to $655.

By contrast, if you were to travel Air Canada to Montreal return on similar days, economy class, the ticket would cost you approximately $600. The economy air fare is double that of the train. Business class airfare could be around $4,000, far higher than the Ocean's sleeping accommodations.

With train tickets being cheaper, what are the other reasons why you might choose train travel over air travel? Air travel wins if you need to get somewhere in a hurry. Train travel wins if you have the time and enjoy travelling, if the journey and not just the arrival matters. Air travel can be stressful. The Stanfield airport has won many awards, but one still has to arrive hours early, wait in queues, go through a series of checks, often be searched, and endure a host of other worries.

Then, once aboard a jet, one is strapped into a narrow seat, assumes a cramped position, waits out any delays and stays put for the time it takes to get to Montreal. With trains, delays may occur, but at least one is able to relax, walk around, go to the dining car, read, work on a computer or just gaze at the scenery out of the window.

There may be downsides, too. We once ran over a skunk in New Brunswick just as we were about to dig into a plateful of bacon and eggs. It took a little while before we were able to fully enjoy them. At least the breakfast was served at a table with a linen tablecloth, proper cutlery and a real flower. Just as on the airplane, the meal will cost you extra.

I do have to note that we have made many trips by plane, but also that we have enjoyed train travel more. It is more civilized; more fun.

I was writing last week about the historical importance of trains to those who lived in the Maritimes when the only practical method of getting to Upper Canada was by train. The establishment of the Intercolonial Railway was one of the conditions of Maritime entry into Confederation.

Later, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King was looking into disaffection in the Maritimes over unequal economic growth, he appointed a royal commission led by Sir Andrew Rae Duncan to see what could be done by the federal government to help. It was understood that not all parts of the country could have exactly the same opportunities, but a reasonable balance could be accomplished.

The Duncan Commission looked at a variety of Maritime grievances, an example of which was that after Confederation the land bases of most provinces were substantially increased, while those of the Maritimes remained the same. The additional lands given to other provinces contained, as the commission said, "resources of incalculable value," and the Maritimes felt compensation for this was needed. The Commission thought there was justification in this.

As far as the railway connection was concerned - a connection that now looks as if it might be broken so far as passenger service is concerned - the Commission reminded the government of the importance of railways under the terms of Confederation. The Intercolonial Railway was completed in 1876. It gave central Canada an outlet to the sea by train (an outlet diminished by the St. Lawrence Seaway), and it gave Maritimers access to central Canadian markets.

It was always costly to operate that railway, given the vagaries of East Coast weather, but the Duncan Commission felt that those extra costs were worth it, and should be borne by the federal government. Freight rates, it argued, should be made more equitable, as the rates of the day were responsible in considerable measure for depressing Maritime business and enterprise.

Freight trains are not passenger trains. Confederation discussions did not anticipate air or automobile travel, but nor could they anticipate the importance of tourism and travel. People still want to travel by train, and a daily schedule with good rates and smart advertising would make it much more popular. It is also a more efficient use of petroleum resources than is air travel, and ought to be encouraged.

  The Ocean is Canada's longest continuously operating passenger train. It is a part of the fabric of our history and identity. It should not be disposed of at the whim of the current government. We need to watch very carefully what happens to that small stretch of train track in Northern New Brunswick that could, if we are not vigilant, derail our coast-to-coast passenger service.

-  Tom Sheppard can be reached at twsheppard@gmail.com

           

            

Organizations: Air Canada, Intercolonial Railway, Duncan Commission

Geographic location: Montreal, Halifax, Confederation New Brunswick Canada St. Lawrence Seaway East Coast Northern New Brunswick

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