People & Culture

Losing track: The importance of passenger rail corridors

What does it mean for Canada if we continue to pull up train tracks? 

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Sean Marshall could sense the end approaching. “I had a feeling it wasn’t long for this world,” Marshall says of the passenger train on Vancouver Island. It was 2005. Marshall took what he felt was a fleeting chance to ride Via Rail’s Dayliner service from downtown Victoria to Courtenay. He had already travelled by train the 4,000 kilometres from his home in Toronto to Vancouver. The trip was part of his fulfillment of a desire to ride Canada’s transcontinental rail network while he still could.

Who could blame Marshall, now a writer who documents Canada’s passenger rail network, for sensing what he did? His 2005 trip was in a Budd rail diesel car — a one-car, 70-passenger, self-propelled train-meets-bus hybrid designed in the 1930s. Via Rail to this day uses Budd cars (which can also be linked together to form a longer train) in northern Ontario to maintain threadbare passenger rail services.

To those who know, the Budd car is a symbol of a barely postponed end, its utilitarianism almost always replacing a much more ambitious era of passenger service. Indeed, in 1985, when Via Rail cancelled the once mighty Edmonton to Calgary rail connection — which in the 1930s saw one of Canada’s first high-speed Chinook trains, moved by Canadian Pacific Railway’s Jubilee steam locomotives capable of 180 km/hr — the service had been whittled down to a solitary, slower-than-driving Budd car. Marshall’s hunch about Vancouver Island’s train was soon proven right: the last Budd car ran on that historic corridor in 2011. 

But while the end of passenger service is where travellers and commuters lose interest, it’s not just the train that can disappear in these tales. Once passengers are gone, pressure mounts to pull up the tracks and develop the land for other purposes. When that happens, entire rail corridors can be lost to history, never to be usable by passenger trains again. In other words, if certain discontinued routes become feasible in the future, it will be impossible to resurrect them. As of 2023, that’s the spectre threatening the Vancouver Island corridor — and it’s far from the only one in Canada.

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Historic rail corridors are ubiquitous in our country, connecting big cities and small towns alike. They could be restored to move people more sustainably in Canada as we rapidly urbanize, clog our highways with carbon-emitting SUVs, evacuate whole cities due to forest fires caused by climate change, and face underwhelming options from our domestic airlines. We have built more than 40,000 kilometres of track network in Canada. But these long, skinny tracts of land, built by a previous version of Canada that prioritized lines on maps rather than complexities on the ground, are today increasingly buried by weeds, trees and rust. And, in many cases, they are being abandoned, parcelled off or seeing their rails torn from the ground. 

In the 28 years that Canada has been documenting its rail-network losses, we have dismantled or abandoned a distance equivalent to that between Halifax and Vancouver, with many more losses still in progress. Similarly, the passenger trains that still run on these corridors are today less numerous, slower and less predictable than in even the 1980s, let alone the 1950s when most towns across Canada still had at least one passenger train running each week — or the 1920s when annual ridership peaked, at 51 million, in a country that was then only nine million people. Even Canada’s flagship passenger corridor, Montreal to Toronto, is in decline. A train trip that in the 1980s took as little as three hours and 59 minutes now often takes between four-and-a-half and six.

Perhaps this failure of our passenger railways to thrive, or now even survive on the ground, is a product of their history. The original Canadian Pacific rail network that Sir John A. Macdonald politically engineered in the years following Confederation in 1867 left changes that reverberate to this day. To travel along it is to travel a narrative of Canada as it runs east to west, from Saint John to Vancouver. The numbered treaties. Towns that thrived and towns that died. The influx of millions of settlers, and with them disease, dispossession, death. Battles and uprisings. The inhuman treatment and death of Chinese migrant workers, and the head tax that followed the railway’s completion. A river of wheat, coal, lumber and, today, oil, all flowing out of the periphery and into the core, often benefiting few, and almost always not Indigenous Peoples. Journeys between ocean coasts reduced from four weeks by boat to one week by rail. 

While some Canadians struggle to understand why Indigenous protests often blockade this rail network, others understand that the past explains the present. “I think for Indigenous Peoples in general, it is very satisfying to see this engine of colonization shut down,” Gord Hill, author of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance, told the Globe and Mail in 2020, when blockades in support of Wet’suwet’en resistance to gas development on its territory sprang up in several parts of Canada. 

There is a second version of this history. This one is sentimental, focused on how rail connected Canada and on a time, not too long ago, when passenger rail still reliably ran the tracks. Without our passenger rail system we (and the world) would lack towns in many remote parts of the country. We might even lack ideals of beauty or Canadian identity. Canadian Pacific built a network of chateau hotels in otherwise hard-to-access places we now take for granted — think Banff and Lake Louise — and marketed it all as the “Canadian Alps.” As the oft-repeated quote of Cornelius Van Horne goes, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” They did. 

Reckoning with these two different historical visions is complex. So is any discussion of the health of Canada’s rail infrastructure: even as passenger travel languishes, there’s a thriving freight train system to move wheat, coal, bitumen, potash and uranium. In 2021, fully half of Canada’s total exports rode atop rail tracks. And Canadian freight rail companies are in empire-building mode. In the mid-2000s, CN bought more than 1,000 kilometres of railway in northern Alberta and Northwest Territories — routes that CN had owned less than a decade before, when it sold them off to American firms. In 2021, CP and CN both put in multi-billion-dollar bids for Kansas City Southern Railway’s network. CP won in 2023, paying US$31 billion to create the first direct railway that links Canada, the United States and Mexico with 32,000 kilometres of track — from Edmonton to Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico. 

Even as passenger travel languishes, there’s a thriving freight train system.

Reece Martin, a transit-obsessed YouTuber who has grown a massive following analyzing Canada’s rails, says this deep commitment to freight rail is part of what’s holding us back from sustaining rail for people. Our freight trains are “land barges [more] than trains,” Martin says, adding the systems run differently than other countries. In Canada, freight trains move slowly and at lengths unseen elsewhere, at up to four kilometres long. They don’t run to a schedule. Our passenger trains share freight tracks. Organizing passenger rail timetables around unpredictable freight schedules, which is what Canada does, is, at best, challenging. “It’s just completely different from how any good passenger railways operate,” says Martin.

Favouring freighting leads to slow passenger rail, frustrated passengers and the slow but steady closure of our passenger routes. It’s a dangerously short-sighted circle, according to Shoshanna Saxe, Canada Research Chair in sustainable infrastructure at the University of Toronto, who says it would be better if we took advantage of the infrastructure we already had to deliver sustainable transportation “instead of spending billions and billions on highways that will just make traffic worse and air quality worse.” She adds that imagination plays a role, too. Our mobility dreams today fixate on the automobile. “This is how we do things,” Saxe says. “We know that this is bad for our economics, we know it’s bad socially, we know it’s bad for the environment, but our inertia is bigger.” 

And so we find ourselves in an era when Canada announces yet more billion-dollar highways while struggling to justify $397 million to improve Via Rail’s main Quebec City-Toronto corridor to make it even vaguely dependable. We’re in an era when Canada continues to let passenger rail decline even as the global consensus on the environmental benefits of passenger rail rolls resolutely forward. Chile is investing $5 billion in four new passenger routes. India is building seven. Australia’s new $125-billion, 90-km Suburban Rail Loop will remove 200,000 cars from Melbourne roads. Florida in 2023 opened the $6-billion Brightline extension to link Orlando airport passengers to Miami via a 200-km/h train that takes three hours. United States President Joe Biden has committed $1.4 billion to improving rail safety and service. The list goes on.

What are the consequences — cultural, social and economic — if Canada keeps abandoning our existing rail corridors for passengers?

“We have this idea that a lot of rail [in Canada] has been abandoned a long time ago. But a lot of rail has been abandoned recently,” says Brian Doucet, Canada Research Chair in urban change and social inclusion at the University of Waterloo. “This is very much an ongoing story. We tend to think of all this abandonment as from our grandparents’ era, when we’re [in fact] seeing a lot of it in our lifetimes.” Many of the passenger rail links Doucet talks of are extremely valuable — the rail from tourist hotspot Collingwood, connecting to Toronto, for example, which was abandoned in 2011, or the 144-year-old Orangeville-Brampton corridor that links Brampton to Mississauga, two cities with about three-quarters of a million people each. The last freight train rolled slowly along the rolling hills and valleys of the corridor in 2021, and the rails are now being removed. 

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo. Data: Canadian Railway Network, Kilometres of track, 1836 to 2016, Darrin Qualman; 2016-2021: Length of rail tracks operated in Canada, 2009 to 2021, Statistica; Current and abandoned rail lines: Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada, Christopher Andreae, 1996; Data updated using National Rail Network (date stamped 2016).
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Doucet and fellow rail advocate Sean Marshall — who has spent the last 20 years riding, documenting and mapping Canada’s eroding passenger-rail network — wrote an essay for TVO in 2021 focused on the 55-km Orangeville-Brampton corridor. In “End of the line: Why Ontario will regret ripping out this rail corridor,” the two stressed the line’s value as a useful passenger route connecting Toronto’s ever-expanding satellite cities. The province, they argued, needed to intervene to save the corridor from being “lost forever.” The two questioned why Ontario was making a near simultaneous promise to build the controversial Highway 413, estimated to cost $8 billion, which would serve several communities that could be served more efficiently by the doomed train corridor. The reasons for preserving rail corridors like Orangeville-Brampton were both economic and environmental, they argued. Indeed, the focus should be on supporting and expanding passenger services. 

“Maybe there’s less need for it for the next five, 10, 20 years,” Doucet says, “but having that north-south connection would be vital.” Without governments protecting these rail corridors, all it would take is a building to go up in one parcel of land for the whole network to be compromised. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. Without protection, he adds, “the likelihood of rail ever coming back there would be slim to none.” (The dark irony of their failed efforts is that the Highway 413 proposal then became enmeshed in the scandal over Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government’s actions to open up portions of its Greenbelt to housing development.) 

Marshall has documented and meticulously mapped the losses to what he describes as Canada’s “once mighty” transcontinental network. The missed opportunity for Orangeville-Brampton, he says, is that an either-or approach for the corridor was taken. If people wanted a nature trail (a popular proposal for defunct lines everywhere), building one didn’t have to close the door to future rail. “It’s possible to keep the rails in place and build a trail next to it,” Marshall says. But even that possibility is now more or less off the table.

Worse, Marshall says, is that the Orangeville-Brampton corridor will not be the last to lose potential connections. As both passenger train and bus services dwindle, smaller cities are becoming less connected for anyone who can’t drive or doesn’t have access to a personal vehicle.

Once passengers are gone, entire rail corridors can be lost to history.

Across the country, another historic rail line and another battle to keep it going.

Judith Sayers became a passenger rail advocate by accident. It was the early 2000s, and her uncle showed up at the Hupacasath First Nation office, where Sayers was the Chief. Somehow, he convinced Sayers to attend a meeting of the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation, which was working to save Vancouver Island’s lone rail corridor. Once there, she says, she was hooked by the potential, the environmental benefits and the ground-breaking partnerships between Indigenous and settler governments — all more or less committed to retaining the corridor. “We were unique,” says Sayers, now president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, a longtime proponent of clean energy projects on Indigenous lands and a professor at the University of Victoria. “I mean, bringing together regional districts and First Nations in the early 2000s just wasn’t done.”

On a map, the 289-km corridor traces the island’s east coast from Victoria north to Courtenay, with a second shorter leg that juts eastward to the island’s western coast, at the edge of Alberni Inlet and the cargo-ship-friendly water at Port Alberni. In Canada’s story, though, this corridor looms larger. The network was built by Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish settler, coal baron and British Columbia parliamentarian, and named the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (known as the E&N line). In the early 1880s, Dunsmuir, then B.C.’s richest man, dubbed the “Coal King,” was handed roughly one-fifth of Vancouver Island’s entire land mass as a right of way and $750,000. The worry? If someone didn’t build a rail line on the island, the Americans might. Eventually, the E&N line became part of meeting B.C.’s terms to join Canada. It was a symbol as well as a railroad. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald himself hammered its final spike in 1886. 

But by the early 2000s, this symbol that once moved people and resources was split in two and rusting. Canadian Pacific now owned the main Victoria to Courtenay branch; Florida-based Rail America owned the Parksville to Port Alberni leg. Both companies wanted to sell. In 2006, after starts and stops, the Island Corridor Foundation negotiated a deal for the companies to donate the corridor in exchange for tax credits and the foundation itself to take over running both freight and passenger rail, through contracts. “At that point in time, I was Chief [of the Hupacaseth First Nation], and we were working on tourism,” Sayers says. “We had dreams of doing a lot, and we knew that if we could have a train running into Port Alberni, to bring people to our businesses, that would be awesome.”

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Twenty years on, though, Sayers’ dreams are where many end in Canada when fixed on restoring rail corridors — mired in the complexities of what could have been. The foundation was composed of 14 First Nation governments and five regional districts. But the historic injustices Dunsmuir, Ottawa and B.C. used to force rail through unceded Indigenous territory have made keeping this political alliance together difficult.

In 2011, when Via Rail suspended its passenger train from Nanaimo to Courtenay due to track conditions, the foundation appealed to Ottawa to make good on long promised funding for improvements. But the Snaw-Naw-As Nation — which had 10 acres of its reserve lands at Nanoose Bay expropriated for the railway through Macdonald’s powerful Indian Act — argued the closure rendered the rail’s lease void, meaning its reserve lands had to be returned. In 2021, the B.C. Court of Appeal gave the federal government 18 months to decide if it would ever invest in the corridor. The deadline was in early March 2023. Ottawa and B.C. issued a joint statement: they were not putting money into trains and the land was being returned, “in support of our shared ongoing commitments to reconciliation.” Snaw-Naw-As Chief Gordon Edwards also issued a statement. “There are many questions about what lies ahead for the rest of the corridor, but for today, we celebrate the successful return of our land,” he said.

Today, as Sayers considers the 20 years invested in her dream, she is subdued. “It’s hard. I mean, you’ve got this whole long railway, and you’ve got First Nations supporting it here and there, and yet you have others who want their land back. You can’t please everybody. And so how do we fix that?” 

And yet the corridor might still have legs. Just days after Ottawa and B.C. opted out of the Island Rail corridor, the Island Rail Corporation, headed by former Canadian Pacific Railway senior manager Dave Hayden, announced a proposal to invest $1 billion and work with Indigenous nations and governments to restore both passenger and freight services — on the exact same corridor. “We are committed to partnering with local First Peoples and Indigenous leaders, supporting the return of unceded corridor lands and sharing in the Island Rail Corridor’s future importance,” reads an Island Rail Corporation statement. Details of how these statements add up — how the corridor can be returned yet also see trains run on it — have not been shared. The company did not return requests for comment. 

“There are many questions about what lies ahead for the rest of the corridor, but for today, we celebrate the successful return of our land,”

Snaw-Naw-As Chief Gordon Edwards

Another tale of delays and frustration is the key corridor linking Alberta’s biggest cities. The 312-km Calgary to Edmonton rail corridor, which runs southward through the rolling, dry plains and crosses historic rivers like the Bow, Red Deer, and Battle, was built by the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company in 1891 (the company received 6,400 acres of land from the federal government for every mile of rail it built) and eventually bought by Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s a line that seems like it should have thrived. Yet the last Dayliner Via Rail train, a three-and-a-half-hour route between the two cities, was shuttered in 1985.

Justin Simaluk and four other advocates formed Rail for Alberta in 2019. The impetus? “We’re kind of fed up and frustrated,” Simaluk says, from Calgary. “Why can’t we do things here? The more we look at it, it’s not like the numbers don’t make sense. It’s more just political will and ideology.”

Studies, numbers and maps all suggest Simaluk has a point. Incredibly, the line closed down a mere four years after a 1981 federal study determined the corridor offered the most passenger-rail potential outside of the Quebec City to Windsor corridor in Ontario. Via Rail cut it anyway. There was also a federal study in the 1970s that determined the two cities offered the “perfect route length” for high-speed rail. This planted a seed that will not go away. Three other government considerations of high-speed rail, in 1981, 2008 and 2014, determined more or less the same thing as the original. Few discussions of regular rail get much oxygen.

For now, the existing CP corridor that connects the two cities is freight only and sees an average of six trains daily trundle along a route that also links significant population centres in Leduc, Wetaskiwin, Ponoka, Lacombe, Red Deer, Innisfail, Olds and Airdrie, among others. Alberta’s Highway 2, which broadly parallels the rail line between the two main cities, now sees roughly 100,000 vehicles daily, and given that some 70 per cent of the province’s 4.7 million people live along this vein, it will only get busier. Indeed, a consultant in 2015 noted the highway was basically tapped out. Adding lanes would come at gigantic cost because “all the bridges [would] have to be replaced.”

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Simaluk says a lack of foresight has allowed the passenger-serving portions of the original corridor to wither. Connections into downtown Edmonton, for example, are long gone.

Meanwhile, with options running out and publicly funded highways a popular carrot during elections, rail still has a little Alberta government backing — on this corridor at least. Two separate high-speed intercity proposals are in development: Prairie Link and TransPod.

In 2021, Prairie Link, a partnership between EllisDon and AECOM, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Alberta to begin work on a potential 400-km/h high-speed train between Edmonton and Calgary. Prairie Link officials have repeatedly reassured reporters that the entire line’s $9-billion cost will be covered by private money. But will it actually get built and, if it does, will it serve the needs of Albertans?

“Whenever these trains get proposed, it’s always a super-expensive high-speed train,” Simaluk says. “It misses all the cities, towns and stuff along the way. It might stop at some airports and then stop outside of downtown. And the whole benefit you get from these systems is being able to go inner city to inner city, that type of thing.”

At the same time, the provincial government has offered Toronto-based TransPod land to test its hyperloop idea — essentially, electromagnetically levitated pods that could be propelled at high speed along an elevated track called a hyperloop. It’s a commuting solution full of dazzling, somewhat-hard-to-believe figures. Edmonton to Calgary in 45 minutes for half the cost of a flight. The creation of 140,000 jobs. Adding $19 billion to Alberta’s economy. Cynics argue the hyperloop technology’s most famous proponent, billionaire inventor Elon Musk, has shared that his hyperloop idea, which he first floated as a solution to traffic woes between San Francisco and Los Angeles, was aimed at compelling California legislators to cancel high-speed rail plans.

What’s actually needed? Simaluk says it’s at least a discussion that considers regular-speed passenger rail as a viable option. “The existing CP corridor is actually really nice, because it goes through every town along the way. And there’s potential to link this entire region into one mega economic corridor instead of just focusing on the anchors of Calgary and Edmonton.”

There are also glimmers of hope, to be sure. Responding to commuter demand, Ontario’s GO commuter rail is busy restoring passenger services that federally funded Via Rail long ago stripped away (calls for all-day service between Toronto and surrounding cities have been growing in volume for decades). Meanwhile, after cutting its early-morning London to Toronto train in the early years of the pandemic and instead letting GO take over the route, Via Rail is now offering it again. GO service is also expanding to Barrie, north of Toronto. And northeastern Ontario’s Northlander passenger rail service, cut in 2012, is in the process of being revived, with the goal of re-establishing connections from Toronto to Cochrane and points between. In Quebec, the passenger service on the Gaspé peninsula is being restored — slowly — thanks to regular people working to pressure politicians. 

In Alberta, the province has allocated $3 million for a feasibility study of a new passenger railway connecting the Calgary airport to Banff, 150 kilometres west. Costs are estimated at $1.5 billion. The project is headed by Liricon Capital, a family holding company of Banff locals. If it goes ahead, the railway will use the existing Banff train station and CP rail corridor. Perhaps most encouraging are Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s comments that “once you’ve got at least a couple of those [passenger rail] legs started, then other [train projects] will be able to develop from it.”

And in northeastern Ontario, the Missanabie Cree have created a business case for the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban, or Bear Train, a passenger train to replace the one lost in 2014 as Ottawa cut subsidies. Fully 400 of the 470 kilometres of rail line are not served by roads. “Citizens in Northern Ontario are becoming increasingly isolated. There is a great need for transportation options, such as passenger train travel in order to level the playing field in relation to other parts of Ontario,” reads the business case. “When there is a First Nation community ready to take a leadership role in re-establishing passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, it makes sense for funders to become involved to make this concept a reality.” The Bear Train is seeking federal money for the project. 

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Still, even as there are small success stories, rail proponents like Reece Martin say it’s almost impossible to advocate for rail when politicians don’t protect all rail corridors, even failed ones, in case they become viable in the future. It is, and always will be, about land. “In other countries, it’s very common to preserve these pieces of land and space,” Martin says. “They wouldn’t rip out rail lines, in most cases. In other countries, even when you’re building a new housing development, you’re setting aside the land next to it so that you can put a rail line in in the future. We don’t have that kind of forward thinking, planning and governance.”

Anthony Perl, author of New Departures: Rethinking Passenger Rail Policy in the Twenty-First Century, sums it up well: Canada, he says, has lost brain power when it comes to rail. Provincial departments of transportation have become “essentially highway departments.” To build significant new rail affordably and quickly, we would have to partner with a country like China, which understands modern railways. Because that’s politically untenable, the fallback position is roads, roads and more roads. Perl sees various African and Asian nations getting the jump on high-speed rail while Canada sits on the sidelines.

Canada, Perl suggests, will instead move to build passenger rail only once it exhausts all other possibilities. Through a long and drawn out process of elimination, he believes Canada will eventually come around to the idea that electric-powered trains are the future. A technology that has been “hiding in plain sight all this time” may again become the future of travel.

As long as we save the tracks, that is.

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This story is from the January/February 2024 Issue

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