Rail Decisions in Canada – Part 1 of 3

October 20, 2014 - Some members of the transportation policy community see big decisions looming for Canada’s rail industry. This is particularly so in Northern Ontario, where questions will have to be answered not just about the federally-regulated transcontinental and short line carriers, but also the province’s Ontario Northland and federally-owned VIA Rail Canada.  Add to this the transportation choices to enable the Ring of Fire’s development.

This makes it timely to revisit key rail policy decisions of the past that greatly affected the region. Such an exploration demonstrates just how powerful future ones are apt to be, rippling through Northern Ontario’s economic, social and environmental life for decades.  Our choices must be carefully considered.

The perfect example is the 1881 decision by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government to ensure the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). After a decade of debate, dithering, inadequate funding, disjointed public construction and a scandal that toppled the Macdonald government seven years before, the construction of our first transcontinental line was finally set to roll as part of Macdonald’s National Policy.

The details of the CPR’s epic challenge and its conquest through a public-private partnership approach remain soul stirring. One of the most fascinating “what if” scenarios within the CPR saga concerns the eastern portion of its route.  Some disagreed with Macdonald’s rigid insistence for an all-Canadian alignment from coast to coast.

Even after the CPR contract was awarded and construction began in earnest, it was suggested the punishingly difficult and expensive route through northern Ontario could wait until after the prairies had been settled and developed, generating the revenue to justify the North Shore route.

Various alternate routings through the U.S. were suggested, even by the members of the CPR syndicate. The most logical would have carried it west from what is now Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie and around the U.S. shore of Lake Superior to Minnesota, re-entering Canada south of Winnipeg.  Even some of Macdonald’s cabinet colleagues were willing to consider this.

In the end, it was the prime minister and the American railroader, Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, who argued loudest for the all-Canadian route. Van Horne, who ultimately directed the CPR’s construction, agreed that a line through the States would compromise the sovereignty and control of this great national project, as well as delay the tapping of northern Ontario’s expected mining and timber wealth.

Even before the CPR’s last spike was hammered home at Craigellachie, B.C., on November 7, 1885, the North Shore route proved its strategic value. The rugged Lake Superior section – which Van Horne called “200 miles of engineering impossibilities” – was incomplete when the Second Riel (North-West) Rebellion broke out at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, in March 1885.

Nonetheless, Van Horne was able to transport the troops, horses and materiel to quell the uprising. Though it meant brutal, frigid marches over the four remaining gaps in the line, the first militiamen, armed and provisioned, were carried from Montreal to Winnipeg in seven days.  Without the CPR, it had taken three months to move troops during the previous rebellion in 1870.

Had the CPR’s North Shore route not been chosen, international accords would have severely complicated the troop movement over U.S. railways. The delay might have produced a different outcome.  The CPR’s North Shore route proved its strategic defense value even before it demonstrated its prowess as a corridor of commerce.

Of more lasting importance, the CPR all-Canadian route did become the spark that ignited the first wave of agricultural and resource development in Northern Ontario, the prairies and British Columbia’s interior. The trade and settlement patterns established by the CPR are still at work, benefiting the entire nation.  Even competition from other railways and other modes of transport has not blunted its continuing impact.

Had a partial U.S. routing been selected, it’s easy to make the case that both the time frame and the pattern of Northern Ontario’s development would have been considerably different. Wagon roads connecting to steamboat service on the Upper Great Lakes wouldn’t have duplicated the railway’s power in rapidly developing the region economically and socially, at least along this steam-powered trail of steel.

The CPR’s success in an era when trains ruled supreme in overland transportation fired the dreams of others. In a series of political and commercial decisions reached little more than a decade later, there is yet more proof of the research and logic that must underpin those concerning rail’s future.  Some provide a cautionary tale today’s public policy custodians and business leaders should consider carefully.

Authored by Greg Gormick, a Toronto transportation writer and policy adviser. His clients have included CN, CP, VIA and numerous elected officials and government transportation agencies.

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