Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Steve Lafleur: There is no obvious scapegoat for Canada’s rail travel woes

Commentary

I thought I was being clever. Christmas travel is awful at the best of times. With a huge storm crippling airports across North America, I decided to take the train from Toronto to Kingston on December 23rd. The plan was to get in a few days early to visit my parents and then my partner would get in on Christmas day. Then we’d head to Ottawa and Montreal by train for a relaxing vacation. Needless to say, things didn’t go according to plan

All things considered, I was lucky. My train hit heavy delays after Cobourg. Eventually, we got stuck intermittently for about two hours until we finally hit Belleville and things started moving better. I got to Kingston about three hours late. It was a far cry from the 14-hour-plus delays people experienced a few trains later. Thankfully, my partner’s flight got stuck on the tarmac for only an hour. 

People are understandably furious. Had I taken a later train, I suspect I would be as well. But I’m not sure there’s all that much Via could have been expected to do differently. 

I take the train reasonably often. I once made the questionable decision to take it from Ottawa to Edmonton years ago. And I used to regularly take the train (or bus) from Sudbury to Toronto. It gives you a heightened appreciation of how big the country is, and how difficult it is to move people by land. You can go a long way on the train without seeing much other than trees and rocks.

The Windsor to Quebec City corridor is a bit different. While over a third of Canada’s population lives roughly on that corridor, it’s still a lot of land. And while you may be close to one town or the other a lot of the time, it isn’t always the case.

Moreover, most people travelling the Windsor to Quebec corridor aren’t actually going that far. There are more people doing relatively short trips like mine than doing the whole route. And even if you are, there are stops. So no need to plan for grueling delays, in most cases.

Given that most segments are short, most people don’t typically order meals. They are standard fare for business class, but even in the business cabin things run out. Trains are not equipped to feed everyone. The kitchens aren’t big enough, and they aren’t going to just let hundreds of meals spoil on each segment just in case.

You need to know all this to appreciate that Via was in a difficult position dealing with unusually long delays. There were some infuriating stories about the payment system being down, meaning people could only buy meals in cash. But even if that wasn’t the case, they almost certainly didn’t have a meal for every person on what was supposed to be a quick two-hour jaunt. So even if the crew decided to break the glass and just hand out meals, they probably would have just distributed them arbitrarily. I could be wrong, but if that is the case, rationing by cash might have been the least awful choice. 

For those comparing this to air travel, no, airplanes aren’t ready for 14-hour delays either. They’d run out of fuel well before that. A few hours of delays and you’d be dead. So enough meals to go around isn’t a big priority there either.

One might also wonder why crews didn’t coordinate with management to arrange for food to be delivered to the trains. That might have been easier said than done. Management would have been stretched thin dealing with multiple stranded trains on the Windsor to Quebec corridor, let alone any other issues. The call centers were jammed for around 48 hours. It was chaos. It’s possible that middle management just failed to make the right decisions. It’s also possible they were just overwhelmed and communication channels broke down. And, of course, it’s possible they weren’t getting the information they needed from CN, which owns the tracks. We don’t know all the details yet, but it’s not hard to see how this could have come unglued without assuming malice or gross incompetence.

You also need to remember that these trains weren’t stopped at a station or in the middle of a city. And the weather wasn’t great. Whiteout conditions and 100 to 120 km wind gusts make already difficult logistics worse. Ever try to get an Uber in Toronto in a blizzard? Now picture that outside a town of a few thousand people at night during a crippling storm. Are restaurants even open at that time and in those conditions on a holiday weekend? It’s not always easy getting to a train in the middle of a forest.

It’s also worth thinking about the train crew themselves. They’re not the best-paid people in the world. And while they have some autonomy to make decisions, they aren’t management. I suppose they could have whipped out their credit cards and found some restaurant to deliver food (assuming the train was near a road and had cell phone service). But that’s a lot to expect. 

For all they knew, it might have just been another twenty minutes. Or forty. Or sixty. At what point do you panic? You don’t want to be the guy who makes a hasty call right before the train starts back up. You are not paid for that if you’re working the Via train.

And for those suggesting they should just have let people walk off the train, ask yourself this question: do you want to be the guy who let granny freeze in the woods? People stuck on a train might overestimate how much better it would be to be outside. You probably don’t want to have to explain that to your boss.

You might also wonder whether Via should have been more prepared for a disaster. Maybe they should have loaded the overhead compartments with extra water and snacks. Maybe. But people don’t tend to get into full prepper mode when they’re used to things going relatively well. 

You might also wonder why they didn’t just cancel trains in advance. While they might not have been able to predict a switch problem followed by a tree falling on a locomotive and a CN derailment, the bad weather was well-telegraphed. It isn’t easy to tell people they don’t get to go home for Christmas. But that might well have been the prudent thing.

People are rightly wondering whether there are lessons we can learn and if Via can do anything differently going forward. There likely are some operational changes they can make. That is beyond my expertise. But they are already taking some important steps to improve the Windsor to Quebec corridor. They just take time.

The most immediate thing they are doing is upgrading the fleet. Via is already testing new, more comfortable-looking trains. Presumably, they will also be somewhat more reliable. If this can cut down on delays and make those delays more tolerable, that will be a win.

The more important thing is the planned high-frequency rail plan. The faster travel times get most of the attention. That’s not surprising. Three hours and fifteen minutes from Toronto to Ottawa would be a big improvement. Depending on how early you arrive at the airport, that might only be an hour longer than flying from Pearson to Ottawa with less hassle. But the real story here is the new tracks they plan to build.

The CN derailment was an almost too perfect illustration of the daily problem Via faces. Via uses CN and CP tracks to provide passenger service. And freight has priority over passengers. If you’ve ever been on a Via train and felt it unexpectedly reverse, it was probably to accommodate freight trains. The new plan would build dedicated tracks between Toronto and Quebec City. That would not only mean that a CN derailment wouldn’t shut down Toronto to Montreal travel for two days, but it would also mean fewer delays and higher speeds in general.

Of course, infrastructure is only part of operating a passenger train service. Operations matter. Hopefully, Via will be better prepared in advance for this sort of thing in the future. Now that it has happened once, they should realize that it could happen again. 

I’m filing this piece from a Via train to Montreal. Hopefully the rest of our itinerary goes well, as it usually does. If not, maybe I’ll get mad. But being angry is no basis for making public policy decisions. 

It’s natural to see events through an ideological lens. But sometimes there isn’t a big lesson to be learned. If you see this episode as definitive proof that we should privatize Via Rail or nationalize CN, take a breath. Unfortunate events don’t always have to fit a grand narrative. 

Sometimes bad things happen. Hopefully, we learn something useful. It just might not be anything groundbreaking or exciting. 

Maybe they need to carry some extra non-perishable food and water in case of emergencies. Maybe they need more call centre staff (something you could also say about airlines, which were mostly unreachable during the storm). Or, we just need to surrender to the weather more often until we get better rail infrastructure. That may not be a satisfying answer, but the truth rarely is. Such is life.

In 2023, Volodymyr Zelenskyy will enter a new battlefield: the culture war

Commentary

To close out the year, we’ve asked our contributors and staff to make a prediction about 2023. You would think, after last year, that we’d have learned our lesson about making predictions, but we couldn’t resist. Feel free to save these if you want to embarrass us with them later.


Ukraine will become a wedge issue

By L. Graeme Smith

In 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will enter a new battlefield, one fought with memes and politics instead of missiles and people: the culture war. 

Zelenskyy’s steadfast and genuinely courageous leadership in the face of unwarranted and seemingly overwhelming aggression from his Russian neighbour vaulted Zelenskyy into overnight status as liberalism’s most impressive living standard bearer. His resolve, clad in military green and positioned in the thick of conflict, was mythic in proportion (even if, like all myth, embellishment is part of the package) and captured the hearts and the imaginations of those in the free world horrified by totalitarian oppression and its insatiable appetite. 

Ukraine’s refusal to back down, roll over, and die, its dogged defence of its own right to peaceful existence, put the lie in many ways to the narrative that the West was irredeemably weak, that it was destined to limp falteringly into decadence and irreversible decline. The people of Ukraine rallied behind their leader, with the support of the democratic world they fought and improbably continue to fight the invaders, and Zelenskyy became a hero

And what do we do with heroes? 

It should not be surprising that, dramatic though it will continue to be, the horrors of the Ukrainian war will not be able sustain the world’s attention and compassion compared to the all-consuming culture war, in all its fresh hell. And by us, I mean most prominently a polarized America, whose internecine squabbles shake and reverberate abroad to unsettle the rest of us in turn. Already, Zelenskyy and his struggle has increasingly become a wedge issue within American political discourse, merely another weapon at hand to criticize and cripple the other side. For whatever the merits of the Ukrainian mission, the worthiness of the cause, the justice that is being fought for, there will be a rising cohort—mostly from the Right, though not exclusively—consumed with cutting him down

Not that there will not be ammunition. Prepare for unsavoury stories of corruption (and more), undoubtedly some true and some propagandized, to come ever more to the fore as Ukrainian pleas for support continue into a second year of long, bloody war and the rest of the world’s goodwill, patience, and interest in their cause begins to be exhausted. 

Domestic political actors will take advantage for their own gain and attacks on Zelenskyy the myth will begin as fiercely as the attacks on Zelenskyy the man and Ukraine the country are being waged now.


The CAF will continue to teeter on the brink of collapse

By Richard Shimooka

2023 for the defence file in Canada will likely see the consequences of decisions made in 2022.

In the last year, the government has signalled significant shifts in Canadian defence policy—a renewal of Arctic capabilities announced in the summer, as well as a new Indo-Pacific strategy, both of which seek a much more robust role for the military in defending Canada and its interests. These strands will likely come together in the publication of a new defence policy update expected early in the year, but their tangible outcomes may emerge even sooner than expected.

It seems to be a newfound impetus to push through spending that will accelerate the renewal of the armed forces, and reinforce these shifts. That might include the acquisition of big-ticket capabilities such as the Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.

Unfortunately, these major policy moves will barely mask the reality of the CAF—an organization teetering on the brink of collapse. The after-effects of COVID, the sexual misconduct crisis, and attempts to reform military culture (among many other issues) all continue to affect the organization. It has contributed to dangerously low retention and recruitment rates that have affected its ability to generate units for deployment.

The Chief of the Defence Staff’s reconstitution order is the most tangible evidence of the military’s state, with the CAF essentially retrenching to a narrow set of core missions. Last week it was revealed that the RCAF would not provide a rotation of CF-18s to the NATO-enhanced air policing mission to Europe after doing so for nearly a decade. The reality is that this will likely be the last major overseas deployment for the next decade, as Canada has insufficient personnel and airframes to undertake anything but its core continental air defence mission. This story will be repeated across the military over the coming years.

Fixing the CAF will take a decade or more of intensive work, which includes limiting foreign deployments in order to not overstretch the military’s very limited capability. The question is whether the government will have the discipline to stick to this plan. Canada seemingly has been able to resist the pressure to deploy a force to stabilize Haiti, but other crises will almost certainly emerge. If Ottawa fails, then it may upset the delicate balance, and lead headlong into a total collapse.