PODIUM

Victims of federal railroading

'Central Canada uses its political clout to screw the Maritimes’

Harry Bruce October 12 1981
PODIUM

Victims of federal railroading

'Central Canada uses its political clout to screw the Maritimes’

Harry Bruce October 12 1981

Victims of federal railroading

'Central Canada uses its political clout to screw the Maritimes’

PODIUM

Harry Bruce

Since Central Canadians often wonder why Maritimers are forever bellyaching about the way Upper Canada uses the federal government to shaft them, I’ll tell a little story to cast light on the mystery. It’s all about railways. Maritimers love their trains, and need them. Maritimers have fewer automobiles per capita than other Canadians, and less money for airline tickets. Moreover, some are so naïve they agree with New Brunswick Senator C.B. Sherwood that good rail service to the Maritimes is a “historical obligation of the government of Canada.” Others are so sentimental they endorse the opinion of Frederictonian David Clark that such service is “one of the traditional ties which bind our country . . . I put it up there with the maple leaf.”

Okay. Let us go back five years to the establishment of Via Rail. We paranoid Maritimers suspected it was just a dirty Ottawa plot to shut down all but one Halifax-Montreal train, and to give decent rail service only to the greedy old corridor that links Windsor,

Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. No, no, said Otto Lang.

He was our ever-charming minister of transport in those days. No, no, you folks have got it all wrong. Sure, Via’s sleek new Light Rapid Comfortable (LRC) trains would indeed give the corridor super service, but they would also be part of a program to upgrade trains right across the country. The West would get them. The Maritimes would get them. Everyone would ride happily ever after. But just this past spring, we got the real poop at last. The LRCs would soon come on stream, and guess what. Yup. All 10 for the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. None for the Maritimes. That decision, in the doublespeak of Transport Canada, is part of the “revitalization” of Canada’s national rail system.

Oh well, we thought, at least we still have our two trains to Montreal. One, the Ocean, goes from Halifax to Moncton, loops around northeastern New Brunswick, pushes up the St. Lawrence. The other, the Atlantic, also goes from Halifax to Moncton, but then it cuts over to Saint John, through a chunk of Maine, on to Montreal. Of course, these aren’t exactly LRCs. Indeed, the rolling stock goes back to the era of “Uncle Louie” St. Laurent, to the days of steam. Like Maritimers, the coaches groan and wheeze their eternal grievances and, a million times over, give the lie to the idea that the wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease. And the roadbeds. All by themselves, the railway roadbeds in the Maritimes justify the opinion of John Francis in Quest magazine that “Canada’s trains have become a domestic scandal and an international joke.” Still we patronize them. We want them.

That’s why every Maritimer who cared about trains welcomed a decision by the Canadian Transport Commission

(CTC) in 1979. After more than a year of public hearings, the CTC, in its so-called “final plan” for eastern rail passenger service, firmly favored keeping both Halifax-Montreal trains. Oh happy day. Someone up there understood. Couldn’t we now quit worrying about the train-killers among the mandarins and boydarins of the ministry of transport? Not, as it turns out, on your life. Enter another ever-charming transport minister. Jean-Luc Pepin, unlike Lang, really can be charming when he tries. This time he didn’t try.

Barely two years after the CTC ruling, Pepin tells us not only that cabinet has ordered the death penalty for the Atlantic (merely the most successful long-haul passenger train in the Maritimes), but also that he won’t even listen to appeals for mercy. Cabinet has ruled. Pepin has made up his mind. That’s that. The Atlantic is only one of 15 routes

the government is scrapping in a program that will affect a full fifth of the national system and 1.2 million passengers, but this program is simply not open to debate. Cabinet used the good old stroke - of - the - pen - behind -closed-doors technique, and later Pepin invited reporters to his office specifically to explain that no amount of public outcry could possibly save any of the doomed trains. Great. Slashing service is “revitalization.” Telling the public to get ^stuffed must be “participatory fdemocracy.” Mussolini was at g least able to make the trains Jrun on time.

The Atlantic is not a ghost train that rattles through the night with empty coaches. Her occupancy rate is a whopping 80 per cent. Last spring, she was so jam-packed on the Halifax-Saint John run that Via Rail sold 6,343 standing room-only seats. Moreover, the Tories’ Task Force on Rail Passenger Service—which, incidentally, listened to dozens of outraged defenders of the Atlantic and received petitions in her favor signed by thousands of Maritimers—recently heard evidence from John Little, Via’s chief ticket officer in Saint John, that from July, 1980 to July, 1981 revenue at his office shot up 22 per cent. The killing of the Atlantic, he said, was typical of the feds’ attitude: “Forget the Maritimes. To hell with them.” “Too often have the developed strengths of our region been stolen from us to appease some political obligations elsewhere,” says Robert Corbett, MP for Fundy Royal. And that’s the point. Leaving aside the whole argument that at a time of horrifying increases in fuel prices it is madness to continue destroying the most energy-efficient means of mass transit, Maritimers see the cavalier killing of the Atlantic as a classic example of how Central Canada uses its political clout to screw the Maritimes. They’re dead right.

Harry Bruce is a free-lance writer and contributing editor to Atlantic Insight.