The Role of Rail

July 17, 2014 - What is the role of rail in Ontario?

That question was at the heart of the work of a provincial task force appointed in 1980 by Premier Bill Davis and headed by MPP Margaret Scrivener. The group’s appointment was a response to many then-current issues and trends in railroading. VIA Rail Canada had just been launched by the federal government to take over the crumbling passenger services operated by CP and CN. The energy crises of 1973-1974 and 1979 had caused many people to recognize the fuel efficiency of rail compared with cars, trucks and planes. The derailment and explosion of a CP freight train carrying dangerous commodities in Mississauga in November 1979 raised serious questions about rail safety and investment.

Thirty-three years after the Scrivener task force delivered its final report, The Future Role of Rail, it’s appropriate to again ask many of the same questions. The world has changed greatly in ensuing years and so has railroading, particularly in northern Ontario. But many of the issues explored by the task force are hauntingly familiar – and still unresolved.

Today, the symptoms indicating our once proud and efficient rail system is stressed include:

  • An increased incidence of major derailments, some with fiery and fatal consequences;
  • Shippers screaming about freight that isn’t being moved expeditiously to domestic and foreign customers;
  • Hundreds of miles of track ripped up and turned into recreational trails; and
  • A beleaguered rail passenger system seemingly cast adrift by its political and bureaucratic masters over the objections of the taxpayers who own it.

This situation didn’t just happen overnight. It is a result of years of flawed government policy and oversight, inadequate funding, an over-reliance on purely private sector solutions and a general disinterest in an industry too many Canadians in positions of power falsely regard as yesterday’s mode of transport. The end product is a slow decline in rail freight and passenger effectiveness at a time when they are flourishing in developed (and developing) nations around the globe.

Northern Ontarians have had a ringside seat for this. Forest industry shippers have had difficulty getting enough cars from the two transcontinental railways to meet their demands and tap distant markets. Branch lines and even formerly vital and strategic main lines have vanished, diverting traffic to other lines that are running out of capacity, or on to the publicly-funded highway system. Intermodal terminals handling containers and truck trailers that ride piggyback on flat cars have been eliminated in Thunder Bay and Sudbury. Passenger services have been discontinued (Toronto-North Bay-Cochrane), threatened with discontinuance (Sault Ste. Marie-Hearst) or reduced (Toronto-Sudbury/Capreol-Winnipeg).

How does a nation or a province correct such an obvious and accelerating decline? That is a question many other jurisdictions have had to face – and for reasons ominously similar to those afflicting our railway system and the public policies that affect it.

The Scrivener task force tried to grapple with these problems in 1980-1981. One of the problems they faced was the fact that the policies that guide northern Ontario’s rail service are often a mixture of federal and provincial responsibility. To the group’s credit, they produced a set of 178 recommendations for action. The tragedy is that virtually none of them were pursued by the provincial government. Some were, but subsequently ditched by later governments.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. So it is that we’re now facing many of the same questions about the future of railroading that confronted the members of the Scrivener task force. New ones have come into play, the most obvious being the choice of transportation modes to grease the wheels of the Ring of Fire’s development.

Time is growing short for the resolution of our national and provincial transportation problems. Other nations have come to grips with similar challenges and have made rail a cornerstone of their overall transportation policies, integrating it with their plans for the highway, air and marine modes. In an era of increasing globalization, we can’t lose track of the fact that most of our competitors are years – if not decades – ahead of us on this count.

If Canada fails to deal with this problem, we’ll pay a steep price. No major nation can compete globally without an efficient and effective rail system. Building and sustaining one won’t come without costs and, as in other countries, some of those costs will have to be borne by the public.

But what we require most if we are going to turn the Canadian iron horse into a thoroughbred is a blueprint balancing public and private interests. The first step must be the long-overdue public debate leading to the production of national and provincial rail policies. That is what the Scrivener task force attempted to stimulate more than 30 years ago. That objective is more relevant today than ever.

So, at long last, let the debate begin.


Authored by Greg Gormick

Greg Gormick is 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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