Railroads and Politics in Canada

ON Jan. 15, the last daily transcontinental passenger train in Canada will cease operation. VIA, Canada's equivalent of AMTRAK, will continue to operate one train on a three-day-a-week schedule from Toronto through Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Jasper to Vancouver. VIA's current Train No. 1, the Canadian, which operates to Vancouver via Regina, Calgary, and the famous resort area of Banff, will be dropped, and these cities will no longer be served by train. My wife and I made the train journey across Canada in mid-December and quickly realized that the issue of the transcontinental train in Canada is more than a simple matter of transportation. To hear our fellow passengers from Western Canada, the issue illustrates a growing dominance of Canadian politics by leadership from the more populated areas of the East.

As passenger rail service increasingly lost out in competition with private cars and the airlines, the rail companies, including the government-owned companies in Canada, wanted to be rid of the costly and unprofitable traffic. Parliament, as did the US Congress, organized a government-subsidized company, VIA, to operate limited passenger services.

Much of the debate in Canada on rail service echoes that in the halls of Congress in the United States. Rail advocates point to the unfair competition of the trucking industry that benefits from government-financed highways. Those in more remote areas point to the greater expense of air travel and to the inadequacies of other alternatives. Opponents of government subsidies insist that the state should not support an uneconomic enterprise. But some of the debate one hears in Canada relates also to the peculiar circumstances of the United States's northern neighbor.

Even compared to areas of the US Midwest, Canada is sparsely settled; under the best of circumstances it would be difficult to make rail service pay. On the basis of US experience, there is little doubt that such service in Canada is especially difficult and expensive. Our trip took place during one of the coldest periods in recent history in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Trains reduced speed to avoid creating a wind-chill factor that would freeze and break rails and equipment. Keeping to schedules was impossible.

But passengers and crews were remarkably stoical in the midst of these conditions. Their principal complaints were that the government in Ottawa, dominated by Easterners, was deliberately trying to find a rationale for ending passenger service in the West by providing inadequate resources to VIA and by leasing better equipment to America's AMTRAK, leaving VIA with worn-out cars especially vulnerable to the hardships of winter.

Discussions of the rail service in the West touches also on Canada's No. 1 problem, the future of Quebec. The minister of transport, Benoit Bouchard, who seems to get much of the blame for the decisions on rail services, is from Quebec. The issue of whether political concessions should be made to Quebec in order to satisfy separatist tendencies invariably enters the conversation.

The Canadian parliamentary system also appears to reduce the effectiveness of public pressure on an issue of this kind. When Canadians, clearly dissatisfied with the government's policies, are asked why they do not appeal to the Parliament, the answer is that the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has a large majority and does not need to pay attention to public attitudes on such a matter until elections loom in another four years.

The type of instant response to constituent pressure that is a feature of the US system is rarely seen in a parliamentary system where party discipline restricts the degree to which a member of Parliament can be responsive to the particular problems of a district.

Canadians who follow this issue are aware of the AMTRAK experience in the US and of the fact that, after a start not unlike that of VIA in Canada, AMTRAK has begun to increase ridership and improve service. Two Canadians with whom we spoke said they had ridden AMTRAK trains in the United States and were favorably impressed.

At a time when problems of pollution, energy use, and the proper role of government in providing services are in the limelight, the future of rail transportation looms as a major political issue. The American visitor in Canada has the feeling that, although the issue of the transcontinental train may for the moment be decided, the debate is far from over.

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