Imagine this: It’s a hot summer day, and you want to escape Toronto for Georgian Bay.
You ride your bike to Union Station to catch a morning train. And within a few hours, you’re in Owen Sound.
You spend an afternoon on the beach before catching the evening train home.
Today, a trip like this is hard to imagine without a car, but it used to be possible…in 1896.
That map is from an old bikers’ guidebook that showed routes bikers could take on trains to just about every corner of the country. Yarmouth to Halifax, Montreal to Terrebonne, Winnipeg to Emerson. It even had ads for the energy bar of the 19th century: Tutti Frutti.
Most of these routes are long gone.
But Canada’s vast passenger rail network once held the possibility of a bright future: affordable, environmentally friendly, mass public transit.
When did we stop dreaming about a future of train travel? And how do we get it back?
“The oldest route, the newest train, the Canadian stainless steel streamliner. The shining symbol of a new era of travel comfort and pleasure within the borders of Canada. Step aboard for a preview visit.”
But it wasn’t all shining. Railways were also a tool to steal Indigenous lands, built with indentured Chinese labour.
And private rail companies and their preferred politicians invented Canadian political corruption, pillaging the public purse.
But passenger rail became cheap and widespread.
In the 1920s, when Canada’s population was under 10 million, Canadians took 50 million rides on trains.
The era of train dominance didn’t last.
With the end of the Second World War came more planes: “Air Canada invites you to discover Canada.”
And more automobiles: “There’s now one car for every four Canadians, second highest rate in the world.”
And the automobile lobby, who had demands for the Canadian government: highways.
“On December 10, 1949, an act to encourage and assist in the construction of a Trans Canada Highway was passed by Parliament and given Royal Assent.”
The auto lobby pulled on all the strings.
“I’m a school teacher. Your children will have a better country to live in because of these new roads. Can’t you see that this highway means a whole new way of life for the children?”
Government support went less and less to the rail system and more and more to the private and immensely profitable auto industry.
As car ownership rose, passenger ridership on CN and CP fell.
Even still, Canada became one of the first countries to make a foray into high speed rail.
“This is Turbo, covering Canada’s busy Montreal-Toronto corridor in three hours and 59 minutes.”
As fast as today’s top trains, it could actually have made the trip in as little as two hours, if only it had been given dedicated tracks and a chance to thrive.
In 1976, passenger rail was taken over by the Canadian government.
“Since April 1st, all passenger train service in Canada has been controlled by VIA, a government agency.”
“This is what you’ll be seeing across Canada for a good many years to come.”
The timing was awful. Neoliberalism was on the rise. Soon, the government began abandoning its public sector. Liberal and Conservative cuts ensued.
“Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in Quebec, boasting about how he had lived up to his promise to restore train lines cut by the Liberals.”
“Le train est de retour en Acton-Vale!”
The train was not returning to Acton-Vale.
“Today, it was part of the cuts announced by Mulroney’s Transport Minister, Benoit Bouchard. VIA service will be cut in half and more cuts could be on the way.”
The Canadian, which once departed daily from Montreal and Vancouver, was closed.
In 1995, the Liberal government followed up by privatizing CN.
“It may be the biggest initial public offering that Canada’s stock markets have ever seen.”
Today, VIA owns just three per cent of the tracks.
On almost all its routes, VIA now operates as a second-class guest.
Remember that the next time you’re sitting still on the tracks while the freight train rolls by. You can thank neoliberal austerity.
Five decades after the Turbo train briefly rolled onto the tracks, Canada is the only G8 nation without high-speed rail.
But good ideas are hard to keep underground.
While we don’t have high-speed rail, Canada has become a world leader in conducting studies on them, with report after report after report after report.
The Windsor to Quebec City corridor would be an ideal place to start, with half of Canada’s population and three of Canada’s four largest metropolitan areas.
The price tag would be $27 billion, which passenger fares would eventually cover.
The project could dramatically slash carbon emissions.
And it could even allow us to start phasing out short haul air travel like European countries.
“Let’s turn to France where lawmakers have voted to ban many short haul domestic flights. It is in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. The legislation will end routes where the same journey could be made by train in less than two and a half hours.”
The government’s response has been to cry poor.
“The high speed rail would cost significantly more.”
It’s curious how they always have money for certain other projects: oil pipelines, US fighter jets, or more highways.
Ultimately, trains aren’t merely about transportation, they’re a pathway to collective well-being, climate safety, and colonial restitution.
One step toward reversing the defunding of public transit by taxing the rich.
One step towards shifting from cars and planes to accessible and ecological transit.
One step toward repairing relations with Indigenous peoples.
With the emergence of three Indigenous owned rail companies, the government should fund many more, handing control over train tracks to the communities they once dispossessed.
Let’s return to Toronto’s Union Station.
Carved into the limestone are the names of 27 train destinations, only 15 of which are accessible today. It’s a message it’s time we heard: the way to the future is on a train from the past.