Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Andrew Cohen: Too much security could doom train travel

When Via Rail learned that terrorists were planning to detonate a bomb along the tracks running between Toronto and New York, it reacted as nervous organizations do in the face of such a threat: It announced a review of security.

When Via Rail learned that terrorists were planning to detonate a bomb along the tracks running between Toronto and New York, it reacted as nervous organizations do in the face of such a threat: It announced a review of security.

Pray this doesn’t mean airport-style security at train stations. If so, it just might kill what remains of passenger rail service in Canada.

The ease with which we can get on and off a train is its greatest advantage. There are other benefits, such as cost, but none as appealing as comfort.

Arrive at the station 10 minutes before departure and get on board. There is none of the security apparatus that has made travel by air so unbearable — the waiting, the disrobing, the ritual request for liquids or gels, the repeated checking of your boarding pass.

Then, the slow, agonizing advance of the conveyor belt and the scrutiny of your bags, often by a trainee, who, seeing something unusual, consults six colleagues. Then, an animated debate over whether they’re seeing a hairpin or a stale string of licorice.

(The new rival to airport security, incidentally, is entering Parliament. There they confiscate penknives, as if a miscreant could hijack the Centre Block like a Boeing 747.)

Trains aren’t as vulnerable as planes. But if the response to the terrorist threat treats trains as planes, rail will become less attractive.

Already, Canada is a country that doesn’t care about rail. As government reduces funding — Via Rail’s subsidy has been cut by 60 per cent since 2011 — service worsens.

Taking the train in Canada is an act of faith. They are becoming fewer and fewer. There is no train between Calgary and Edmonton, which could support one, given their size.

The trains running across the country from Halifax to Vancouver — the single best way to understand the size and diversity of Canada — are a shadow of what they were.

But the decline of service is particularly critical in Central Canada, where the need is greatest. Consider trains connecting Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

You can go to Montreal from Ottawa for the day, but don’t plan to stay for a leisurely dinner, because there is no return train past 7:15 p.m. There are seven trains between Canada’s capital and its second-largest city, where flying isn’t a good option, but nowhere near the number of buses.

The paucity of trains in the most densely populated region in Canada is only one problem with rail. Others are punctuality and performance.

Via often runs late. The other day, my train to Toronto was an hour overdue, and Via offered everyone a 50 per cent refund.

My son, who travels often to Toronto, is reliably 15 or 20 minutes late in both directions. No doubt Via will say that it runs on time. If so, few passengers believe it.

Then there are the carriages, which evoke Cold War Bulgaria. Some Canadians fondly remember the Rapido and the Turbo of the 1960s and 1970s, which ran between Montreal and Toronto. Maybe these carriages were new then.

The staff is unfailingly polite, managing decline with grace. It’s not their fault. They apologize to business-class passengers that there is no hot breakfast because the weather has brought additional customers, and they do their best to find something else.

But a bar car, even a dining car, on the train in this most populated corridor? A drink by the window, or a meal on a white, starched tablecloth? Not in Canada.

We laced the continent with rail in the 19th century, which Pierre Berton called “the national dream.” We built in impossible places. We had the will and the ambition then. Today, the very idea of faster, better trains is a dead letter, though the Chrétien Liberals, under the spirited David Collenette, made a financial commitment to rail that would have made a huge difference. It was cancelled.

High-speed rail? David Peterson and Robert Bourassa discussed it in the 1980s. It’s stuck in the station, too.

Yes, rail costs money. Yes, it needs a subsidy, like trains everywhere. Access to good, sustainable, affordable public transit (within and between cities) is a fundamental responsibility of government, like health care and national security.

While the United States, Europe and Asia invest in rail, understanding its economic return, Canada demurs. When it comes to trains, we’re happy to ride in the caboose of contentment, if we ride at all.


Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.