Canada

Workin’ on the railroad

ROBERT LEWIS March 21 1977
Canada

Workin’ on the railroad

ROBERT LEWIS March 21 1977

Workin’ on the railroad

OTTAWA

“There are people who still yearn for what is romantically known as the far-off, haunting wail of a steam whistle. We Westerners who have heard it will never forget the sound of that whistle, but today it is only something for the older generations, the poets and the writers. We should not confuse nostalgia with needs. It is not our intention to restore the great trains of the past, but to create the great train service of the future. ”

That statement by Transport Minister Otto Lang late last year tried to set the tone for a major reorganization of Canada’s passenger rail service, now being undertaken by the federal government ^vith the long-term aim of scrapping duplicating routes, cutting operating losses anc^making transcontinental rail travel generally more attractive. Late last month. Lang unveiled the centrepiece of the government’s wide-ranging—and controversial—plan: the creation of VIA Rail Canada Inc. to take over all responsibility for the planning, marketing and performance of the passenger train services operated by both CP Rail and the government-owned Canadian National Railways. At the same time Ottawa will meet all of the losses incurred by the passenger services instead of picking up only 80% of the tab, as is now the case.*

*In 1974, the last year for which figures are available, the combined deficit for passenger services was $167 million.

Next month, the Canadian Transport Commission is expected to announce another key part of the government’s strategy by outlining plans for a new transcontinental passenger rail network, based on eliminating costly and inefficient duplication of runs along parts of the 3,000-mile trans-Canada route. The new VIA trains— not likely to appear before 1980—are intended to have richly colored, comfortable interiors, high-speed schedules, predictable arrival and departure times and markedly improved personal service. The task is monumental, not least because the service now existing on transcontinental trains is usually a far cry from the golden days of rail travel when passengers were treated in almost regal style and catered to exquisitely.

Earlier this month, Maclean’s Vancouver bureau chief Judith Timson made a return train trip across British Columbia, through the Rockies and into Alberta for a firsthand look at conditions on the trains. She reported: “On the CP Rail run to Calgary, there are groans in the dining car when the wine list is produced—only local stuff at $2.95 for a half bottle. ‘Welch’s Grape Juice,’ sighs a lady from Washington, after a taste. A waiter is asked to return a steak which was ordered medium rare but arrived well done. He returns with the same steak. ‘Chef says to tell you it’s medium rare,’ he announces. I give up.

“One of four rail workers on their way to Calgary for a ‘wild week’ enters the bar car later and mutters: ‘This hash alright here, or should I take it to my room?’ A discreet porter leaves quietly. ‘Have a toke,’ the reveler growls at a reluctant passenger. Next day, the bar steward says he has run out of‘just about everything.’

“R. W. Plomish, who will retire this year at 65 after 32 years on the trains, talks sadly about the days he thinks the railway will never see again. Says Plomish: ‘They’ve done away with the frills. Everything used to be silver. The waiters were all like English butlers. That’s finished now.’

“On the return trip to Vancouver on CN, there was no roomette available and because the berths are said to be overpow-

eringly stuffy, the alternative was to pay more for a bedroom. There is a different atmosphere on the CN train, perhaps because it’s Sunday and the bar is closed, perhaps because of the large number of young children, the modernized observation car and the comfortable seats. Weekend train travel is mostly a grind, but it might be okay if only we hadn’t heard of planes.”' Air travel and the ever-increasing use of cars as the primary means of transportation is of deep concern to Otto Lang as he makes his bid to restore rail service as a viable means of travel—with priority going to the heavily populated QuebecWindsor corridor. He acknowledges that it takes a “jump of faith” to believe that trains will ever regain their lost prominence, but he says something must be done to improve efficiency, otherwise operating losses by 1980 would reach $400 million annually. His critics—and they are legion—say his plans are predoomed.

Says a senior transport official: “They [the government] aren’t going to save any money.” The official, who requested anonymity, says the government should have increased its coverage of current losses to 100%, then insisted the railways run their own services. Conservative Transport critic Jack Horner says flatly: “That conglomerate [VIA] won’t work.” Horner says the government plan will be frustrated by jealousies between the management of both companies and between the managements and the Department of Transport. Adds the Alberta MP: “Apparently the CPR is being taken off the hook [by the VIA take-over]. Part and parcel of the CPR’S obligation, in return for its land and money grants for building the railway, is the provision of passenger service across the country.”

But Frank Roberts, 54-year-old president of VIA and a 38-year veteran of railway work, vehemently disagrees. Says Roberts: “There is no public passenger service in the world that 'makes money.” However, Ed Finn, public relations director of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers, says he is worried by the VIA Rail proposals. Finn argues that improvements and new equipment will be concentrated on the major cities in Canada and their costs will be offset by further cutbacks and perhaps abandonment of services in more remote parts of the country, causing a considerable number of layoffs and relocations of workers.

Changes in railway routes, whether passenger or freight, often had devastating consequences for communities affected in the past. In the southeastern Saskatchewan community of Windthorst, for example, a scarred railway bed and partially torn down grain elevator are the only reminders of the days when a train whistle served as a signal for people to rush to the railway platform to pick up mail, machinery parts and other vital supplies. But Windthorst lost its train service in 1961. In the immediate aftermath, nearly half the population left and its whole economy was hammered until new jobs could be found to replace those connected with the railway, and new modes of transportation were developed.

Meanwhile, Lang, who is wincing from a series of political setbacks, including the Quebec air traffic dispute and disclosures of his heavy use of government aircraft, is obviously anxious to develop a highly successful policy. But the obstacles still to be overcome are formidable. Nevertheless, says Horner, “Lang is in a tremendous hurry to improve his own political image and VIA is one way to do it.”

ROBERT LEWIS

BUREAU REPORTS