Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Climate Change and the CNR.

Are the two already on a collision course, with Canadian train travellers caught in the middle?

by Larry Powell 

Uneventful? Forgettable?

Our Via Rail trip from Winnipeg to Toronto this week, would hardly fall into either of those categories.

First, as we waited to board, our train, The Canadian, was over two hours late arriving at the Winnipeg station from the west. 


Larry on a less "eventful" ride to 
Toronto a few years ago. PLT photo.
Some of the passengers who got off there made mention of white-out conditions before their arrival. But others seemed to think the delay was mainly due to the number of freight trains they had to yield to by pulling over and stopping on sidings along the way. The CNR owns the rail line so their freights always have the right-of-way over trains carrying passengers. This has been the case for many years, so that part has not changed. What seems to be changing is the frequency and duration of those stops. For example, passengers who used to spend a single night on the Winnipeg-Toronto train a few years ago, now spend two. 

After finally boarding after midnight to begin our journey, Rowena and I encountered more delays than we recalled having experienced on any of our several, previous trips. That night, in the middle of the night, our train sat motionless for no less than three hours somewhere in Northern Ontario. The next morning, a Via Rail staffer explained, we had to wait because a CN freight had broken down ahead of us and had to be repaired. As if that wasn't enough, relentless snowfall along the way and the resulting buildup of slush and ice, had played havoc with the switches, complicating the job of entering and exiting the sidings. 
The view from the rear window. PLT photo.
While all of this has been happening, CN freight traffic is said to be expanding rapidly. This means longer, slower trains and undoubtedly growing frustration between Via, a crown corporation, and the CNR, a now-private, shareholder-owned corporation. Apparently, Via trains such as The Canadian, can generally go faster than the freights, too. This means further delays when they get stuck behind the slower-moving freights. 

But our Toronto-bound train wasn't the only one to face delays this week. The west-bound Canadian was a whopping 18 hours late leaving Winnipeg because of another disabled freight train on the main line!

By the time our own train arrived in Toronto, it was about eight hours behind-schedule. 


The snowfall that seemed so persistent during our long journey and the mounds that had already accumulated on the roof-tops and roadways of the rail-side communities, left some passengers bewildered. One woman from Florida wondered if the deep snow might be piling up against doors, preventing the residents from getting out. 

Her companion remained cheerful, but painfully conscious of the long trip. He remarked with a smile, "I can't remember when I wasn't on this train!"

All this begs the question, could climate change and the CNR be converging on a "collision course" which might catch rail passengers in the middle?

In some way, we may have already reached that point. Mercifully, the troubles described here don't seem to be going beyond what might be called inconveniences, so far. Nor do they seem to have dampened the enthusiasm - even affection - which many passengers still feel for this amazingly civilized mode of travel. 
Chinese bullet trains are capable of travelling 350 kmh. Do you suppose they share the right-of-way with freights?

So, do we need to fuss, fret or worry about getting on a train in Canada right now? Probably not.

Should we be concerned about where all this is going?

Absolutely.


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