Discover more from Michelle Rempel Garner
Trains shouldn’t be this dangerous.
Canada needs more rail service. It also needs existing capacity to be safer.
I'm writing this on a VIA rail train en route from Toronto to Ottawa. We've been stalled on the track outside Kingston for over two hours due to what is being diplomatically called a "trespasser fatality."
The incident is taking a toll on the staff, who, in addition to having to give updates about when the coroner will arrive, have to deal with an irate passenger in the row in front of me. He doesn't seem to understand that it's not the stewardess's fault that someone wandered onto the tracks tonight.
As he demands that the steward serve him more alcohol (she doesn't), he grows louder and more belligerent. One of the stewards sits beside him in an attempt to calm him down. He asks him to consider the tragedy that's just occurred and the impact of what's happened has had on the conductor.
The passenger says he doesn't care.
Apparently, he's not the only one who feels that way. Though dozens of trespasser fatalities like this occur every year, few are investigated, which makes it difficult to prevent more from happening. And aside from the work of a few organizations, the limited efforts on the part of the federal government have yet to be effective in curbing them.
There are other serious safety issues with Canada's limited rail service between major metropolitan areas. Existing capacity on those routes has been allowed to fall into such a level of disrepair that VIA Rail has had to add so-called "buffer cars" between dilapidated, ancient passenger cars to limit casualties in the event of a crash. This past winter, snowstorms left passengers in that corridor stranded for multiple hours, many without access to toilets.
Within urban centers across Canada, rail safety faces other serious challenges.
An epidemic of crime has plagued subway and light rapid transit rail services in urban municipalities. In Toronto, the subway is the setting for regular and frequent random acts of violence against passengers. And in recent years, suicides on that same subway dramatically increased. In Calgary, the CTrain is rife with drug overdoses and harassment and is rapidly becoming seen as a de facto homeless shelter.
Ironically, some of the root causes of these safety issues could find at least part of their solution in more access to rail transit. With housing affordability a crushing problem across virtually every demographic in Canada, homelessness is on the rise, as are many associated issues - addiction, poverty, violence, and crime. But when the radius of the areas where we can live and work is limited by automobile traffic, it limits housing strategies. Rail can expand possibilities.
Canada's lack of safe, reliable rail service poses other problems. More greenhouse gas emissions are produced without rail service to displace cars and airplanes. The lack of rail service is often cited as a tourism growth barrier, as well as a strike against attracting in-migration to a region.
But to build more rail and to make our existing service safer, political leaders have to look beyond existing dogma and see these issues as solvable. They need to exert more political will and less bureaucratic inertia when it comes to solving them. For example, after a decade of trying to get light rapid transit built for my sorely underserved community in north-central Calgary, I'm well acquainted with why passenger rail projects fall off the tracks.
With few exceptions, if a project ever makes it out of the scoping phase, they often face massive cost overruns and construction delays. During the building process, the goal of rail projects frequently gets pulled away from ridership or safety. Calgary's mismanaged Green Line is an excellent example of this. As with Ottawa's disastrous light rapid transit project, they can face extensive operational problems when built. Strong political leadership and oversight are needed to ensure projects get built on time, on budget, and with enough quality to safely get people where they need to go.
Safety should be a component scoped into any rail project's build-out. That principle needs to go beyond the need for the long term management of sound structural integrity to including strategies to curb trespasser fatalities and on-board crime.
Our conductor just announced that the police gave us the green light to continue on our route. Among my fellow passengers, there's a general sense of somberness given what just occurred and a sense of gratitude for being on our way.
For Canada to be a serious country, it should be able to offer prospective rail passengers far better.
*Michelle wrote this piece on the evening of April 16, 2023. It was published on April 17, 2023.
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