The train, a means of transport bygone or of the future in Canada?

The railroad has long been the political foundation of Canadian Confederation. But the democratization of the automobile, after the end of the Second World War, did not take long to slow down the development of passenger rail transport. Travel through time and look at the present (and the future) on rails.

At La Prairie station, on the South Shore of Montreal, it’s time to celebrate on July 21, 1836. The Dorchester, the first train in Canadian history, is about to leave. Among the thirty or so distinguished passengers on board are Governor General Lord Gosford and a certain Louis-Joseph Papineau. Member of Parliament and President of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada, the pioneer of Quebec nationalism then took charge of the Saint-Jean station, where the festivities would continue, drum beating, just to celebrate the inauguration with great pomp. Affordable, the Champlain and Saint-Laurent Railway quickly became popular with Montreal families. Rather rudimentary and short – 23.3 km – this line kicked off the conquest of Canadian railways, which would accelerate over the following decades. A real revolution in transport at a time when “long distance” journeys were confined to the river network.

“Rail has been the tool for building Canada,” summarizes Florence Junca-Adenot, professor in the Department of Urban and Tourism Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). “The railroad has enabled the development not only of cities, but also of regions from east to west”, ensuring the transport of both passengers and goods.

For political decision-makers, relying on rail therefore fulfills a double objective: to populate the vast territory while industrializing it. The railway thus experienced a real boom in the second half of the 19th century.e century. From the Intercolonial – a flagship project enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1867, linking Nova Scotia to Ontario – to the Canadian Pacific Transcontinental Railway, to the Canadian Northern Railway, which aimed to improve the service in the Prairies, projects are multiplying.

“In Canada, the railway companies have played almost a civilizational role, in any case societal,” says Jean-Paul Viaud, curator of the Canadian Railway Museum, which is located in Saint-Constant. ” [Le rail] did not only have a transport function. And unlike in Europe, the railway companies here touched on several areas: aviation, road transport, truck delivery, tourism, hotels, etc. ”lists the expert.

A decline?

Except that today, the golden age of Canadian railways seems well and truly over. For the transport of passengers, at least. At the end of the Second World War, it is the all-car that takes the top. As a result, it is mostly goods and livestock that now travel by train across the country. Of the nearly $ 10 billion in revenue generated by the rail industry each year, only 5% comes from passenger services, the rest coming entirely from freight transport. By way of comparison, some 60 million motorists use the Quebec City-Windsor corridor each year, compared to just under five million riders for the train on this same section.

” The politicians [de l’époque] followed this wave and saw road transport as a means of the future: the money no longer went to the railroads, but to road networks ”, relates Jean-Paul Viaud, who nevertheless underlines that the rail transport of freight continues to be popular, with the sector employing 36,000 railway workers across the country. Unlike the Old Continent where traveling by train is well established, in Canada, “people have tasted this North American mentality and discovered the freedom of movement that the automobile provides”. This put the brakes on the intercity rail sector, a decline that the rise of the airline industry has only amplified. Added to this reality is the significant cost of maintaining an extensive network over an immense area, but not densely populated.

However, Mr. Viaud refuses to speak of absolute “decline”. “Of course, the idea persists that passenger transport is the poor relation of rail, but intercity transport has experienced a ‘boom’, especially since the early 2000s,” he says. Despite everything, “inter-city transport still suffers from a deficit of interest and attention, due to competition from the automobile and aviation, especially on the most“ paying ”corridors. Lobbying had [pour effet] to curb alternative options ”.

Reserved lanes, the solution?

To restore this tarnished image, a solution is needed, according to the curator of the Canadian Railway Museum: reserve railway lines, exclusively, for passenger trains on the busiest routes. Because on the rails currently in Canada, goods have priority over travelers. “Passenger trains are essentially obliged to use the tracks of freight companies and are therefore subject to their priorities, their schedules. This situation sends the signal to people that deep down the train is unreliable. To take off, the passenger rail must have freedom of action. “

In early July, Ottawa also announced that it wanted to invest in a high-frequency train (TGF) project that would link Quebec City and Toronto, the cost of which is estimated between 6 and 12 billion dollars. These trains, in addition to running on a reserved lane, will be powered largely by electricity, says VIA Rail.

Enough to arouse the enthusiasm of Caroline Healey, Executive Vice-President of the Railway Association of Canada: “We are entering a dynamic of passenger trains more European-style, that is to say with designated corridors and a much higher frequency of passage “, she rejoices, stressing the climatic advantage of the train, which, in the country,” represents only 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions of the transport sector ”.

Still, in the eyes of Michel Archambault, the TGF is half-measure. According to the professor emeritus at the Department of Urban and Tourism Studies at UQAM, the authorities are on the wrong track by not opting for a more ambitious high-speed train (TGV), which nevertheless runs on the other side of Atlantic.

“If we want to strike the imagination [et susciter l’adhésion de la communauté d’affaires], it is not by choosing the TGF ”, which will have a maximum speed of 177 km / h, believes the one who brandishes the climate emergency as the main argument. “What we want is for people to abandon planes and cars for trains, especially over long distances. Several studies show that the key factor in ensuring an increase in ridership and a train’s profitability is time. It takes a turn, a break with the past, and in that sense, the TGF is not going to fundamentally change people’s habits. “

On the climate balance

Watch video

Leave a Comment