FORMER prime minister Jean Chretien once observed that, while many people would like go to heaven someday, very few want to have to die to get there.
Chretien was referring to the tricky task of balancing the government’s books which, during his tenure, involved cutting a fair number of federal pubic-service jobs.
The conundrum of trying to be fiscally responsible without being too draconian about it applies to any government department, no less transportation.
Last week, a Sault Ste. Marie-based researcher bemoaned the fact that governments even before Chretien’s time haven’t exactly been overly financially supportive of passenger rail in Northern Ontario, despite its obvious advantages.
Coincidentally last week, Bombardier unveiled in Berlin, Germany, a prototype of an emissions-free train that could soon travel up to 100 kilometres while powered by a battery.
Battery-powered trains seem like the way of the future. They would operate quieter than their diesel-powered counterparts that foul the air with their exhaust fumes.
That’s a major plus for a generation that’s likely going to be obsessed with solving another conundrum: global warming. Understandably, fewer young people today are thinking of owning a vehicle.
Though trains make headlines when they derail and spill thousands of litres of crude oil, by and large they create less mayhem than the annual carnage caused by large trucks on major highways.
Many people who work in the auto industry might see the logic of building up passenger rail in the North but, understandably, very few would want to lose their jobs because of it.
They probably don’t have to worry. While the future of light rail in urban areas may seem reasonably bright (and may keep Thunder Bay’s Bombardier plant humming), it seems highly unlikely that passenger rail — which depends heavily on substantial government subsidies everywhere in the world — will be expanded to remote areas like Northwestern Ontario in our lifetimes.
For one thing, the infrastructure is just not there. And there seems to be no inclination by governments at any level to make the kind of investments that would change that anytime soon.
By contrast, the province gets much more mileage out of pumping many millions into automobile manufacturing plants, notably the sprawling Toyota complex north of Toronto.
Meanwhile, short-line rail routes that once connected Manitouwadge and Greenstone to CP Rail’s main line were ripped up several years ago for business reasons. They have not been replaced.
Efforts to restore Via Rail service between White River and Thunder Bay have gone nowhere. “Use it or lose it,” was the mantra put forward by former prime minister Brian Mulroney, whose Conservative government cut the service in 1990.
Further east, it’s been a struggle to convince the current federal government to restore passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, leaving outfitters and lodges on that route high and dry. And it remains to be seen if Premier Doug Ford will make good on an election campaign promise to re-start the Ontario Northland train between Toronto and Cochrane.
With the scenery and leg room, a ride on a train can be a heavenly experience. There are many good arguments in favour of expanding passenger rail. But Canadian governments aren’t dying to hear them.