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Comment: Building a better kind of rail

A commentary by a resident of Victoria.
Thomas the Tank Engine. HIT ENTERTAINMENT

In the June 22 edition, the director of the Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition presented what he called a strong case for reviving rail service.

While he made many good points, I’d like to point out one not-so-good one he did not present, a fact countering one of his points, and a point in favour he did not mention at all.

The not-so-good point is that reviving rail would mean that rail service would cross a lot of existing road traffic lines all along the route. Experience shows that road users in cars and trucks would not be be so happy about having to make stops for trains. In addition, there could be pedestrians fouling up rail travel on the in-city rail.

Secondly, in his presentation the director also states that “…rail gets passengers – and cyclists – to their destinations virtually all the time, on schedule, and no matter what the weather.”

My personal experience, on the old CP Rail service from Vancouver to Calgary, would argue that is so far from true as to be almost laughable.

I found that out in 1973, I decided to try taking the rail service from UBC to Calgary for Christmas. Regular time was some 18 hours, which was not bad for those times, and there would always be meal service and the bar car to help pass the time.

Or so we thought.

It turned out the rail service took 26 hours – so much for on schedule! Nor could us regular passengers use the bar car – we were told that was only for first class ticket holders. The food service ran out of food. And drinking water.

The train was held up for excruciating hours in the back of beyond because of avalanches. As for looking at scenery, well, it all looks the same when it’s covered in snow.

Being one of the many smokers in those days, I asked if I could step off the train to have a cigarette. Nope – too much risk of being left behind, I was told, if the train suddenly started to move. As if any big train suddenly starts to move!

That is the fact that really makes me doubt the claim that rail gets you there “no matter what the weather.” That is a huge point knowing what sort of winter weather the revived rail line will get.

Thirdly, the point not made is that anyone with a lick of marketing sense would tell you there needs to be something special about rail service. What could be made special about this service is to make the train something that people would come from all over the world just to ride?

Try making the train look like something from the Thomas the Tank Engine show. Make it a rail adventure, so that even if you had no business travel to make, you’d make the trip just because it’s an adventure.

Consult with any four- or five-year old child to get practical ideas of how the engine and cars should look.

Along with this, have a side train, perhaps a Butchart Gardens Bertie that would take riders from Keating Station direct to the Butchart Gardens.

On the way, riders could buy a Butchart Gardens ticket and alight at a special station inside Butchart Gardens. They wouldn’t have to go through the ticket line-up at all. There would be a real rail bonus!

Those are three ideas that might help revive rail on the Island. But personally, I’m not holding my breath about it.

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