Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cars On Trains

I have the flu at the moment, and am therefore not feeling particularly able to do much in the way of work, whether on my social movement history project or in terms of blogging that would take any intellectual effort. But I have a little bit of time, so I thought I would do a quick and easy post that I had already half-written in my head, on a completely silly feature of the transportation infrastructure that is in my city and my province.

The duplex of which we rent half is about thirty or forty feet from one of the main trans-Canada rail lines. You get a clear view of the track from windows in the back of the house, and you hear and feel every train that passes -- the first few nights we lived here it disturbed my sleep but now I mostly don't notice. I don't really know much about the current state of Canada's rail infrastructure, so I'm not sure what proportion of trans-Canada rail travel actually goes past our back door. I do know that partial deindustrialization in Western countries and shifts to just-in-time production systems over the last couple of decades have meant rail is not as significant a mode of transportation for goods as it once was. Nonetheless, lots of freight trains go by our house every day.

When we decided to move from Los Angeles to Sudbury, it was not a decision that sat easily with me, and it is one that I continue to wrestle with as part of larger processes of self-reflection. One of the things that made it more palatable to me was the opportunity for greater connection with southern Ontario, which can provide me with things that this city cannot -- existing social networks, both friends and family, as well as opportunities of various sorts. Our decision to get a car not long after moving here was a complex one and I won't explore it in detail. I do appreciate that it rests at least in part on having the economic privilege to afford one, something we did not have during our stay in L.A., and something that many people in our car-centric culture do not have at all and are therefore punished for. It has been important to me to find ways to live that do not involve owning a car, for environmental reasons and complicity in imperialism reasons and because they are money sinks, and one of the prime ways I wanted to do that was by living in a city that made it unnecessary and then renting one when it couldn't be avoided. Though I'm sure a case could be made for Sudbury fitting that definition, we ended up reluctantly deciding that it did not meet it for us. One of the central arguments for me was the importance of a car in keeping connected with the south in a way that was not so inconvenient or unpleasant as to make it unlikely that I would do it.

I have always liked trains. I don't really have many memories growing up of travelling by train in North America. I know there was a trip to Montreal with my mother and a visiting cousin when I was probably three or so, during which I'm told they conversed with each other in broad Glaswegian accents in character as "Senga" and "Saidie," apparently something they did from time to time when they were younger and which would have moritified me had I been a little bit older at the time. I remember a couple of school trips in late public school and high school that involved the train. But for the most part, my early experiences of the train were in Scotland -- we went for four or six weeks every summer until I was thirteen, and stayed with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in a neighbourhood in Glasgow called Burnside, and to get to the train station you had to take the bus or walk down a great big hill to another neighbourhood, Rutherglen. I always enjoyed opportunities to travel around the city, whether it was going with my mother to visit an old friend of hers, to a bagpipe maker with my dad, out on some errand with my Granny, or whatever. These trips almost invariably involved some combination of the light rail system and buses. (It wasn't until I was in university, and I discovered that some of my friends who grew up in the same area of rural and small town southern Ontario as me did not really know how to jaywalk across city streets, that I realized that I also learned that skill on these trips, on the streets of Glasgow.)

So, yeah, positive formative associations with rail travel. As an adult, my experiences with trains have been much less, but have included extensive use of it during one eight-month period of university when I was on a work term in Ottawa and wanted to come back to Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo for frequent visits; on a one-month trip to Europe after university was done; and then for a trip to the heavily militarized metropolis of San Diego when we lived in Los Angeles (which was L's first train trip).

So here it is: I like the train. It appeals to me both politically and emotionally. I would rather spend the duration of the trip between Sudbury and Toronto reading or writing or looking out the window than sinking my energy into keeping a ton of steel and glass pointed in the right direction. I live in a city that is a node of significant rail infrastructure of national importance. You might think this was a good match.

Passenger service between Sudbury and Toronto occurs a grand total of three times per week. The only passenger train that makes that trip is the one that goes between Toronto and Vancouver (which, for readers who don't know Canadian geography, is the complete other end of the country, and it's a big country). When I have happened to see it go by, it has only two or three cars, and often enough they do not appear to be full. Despite that, fare between Sudbury and Toronto is (I think) several times that of bus fare.

It's dumb enough that there is this great sustainable transportation infrastructure already here but not organized in a way that people can practically take advantage of. But here's the kicker: One common kind of train car on the freight trains going from East to West has a solid metal frame, often painted yellow, with plain metallic panelling making up the sides. That side panelling has lots of small holes in it, and if you look closely in the right light you can see the cargo.


I have no quantitative evidence for this beyond my own anecdotal observations, but I would put money on my guess that there are more cars that take the train to, from, and through Sudbury every week than there are human passengers.

That's messed up.


Randy said...

Ha Ha! Trains, the most expensive way to travel in Canada, and why???
I love trains but having checked prices it's just not affordable for many people.
Before our first child was born, my wife and I actually took a Greyhound bus non-stop from Toronto to Vancouver. And back. Within 15 days or something like that. Don't try this.

rabfish said...

Oh dear.

Anonymous said...

It was the trade unions featherbedding that reduced Canadian Rail to it's present state!!

Randy said...

Scott, forgot to say that i hope you feel better soon. Gotta go listen to some train songs...

Scott said...

Hi Randy...thanks for the good wishes. Enjoy the train songs!

Hi Rabfish! Hope your dinner w. your friend last night was good!

Hi Anonymous! Oh, right, of course, the silly of me...rail has been one of the longest continuously organized sectors in Canada, and it always makes sense to blame the workers who manage to win a decent living instead of the companies turning the money into profit for people who don't have to sweat for it.

Dude, do you know anything about British labour history? I don't know anything about the rail sector in particular, but I do know that at the time I was taking the train in Scotland (and for decades before that) the labour movement was stronger there than anything Canada has ever seen. So if "greedy workers" was actually the answer, as opposed to an ideologically motivated misdirection, how could the working-class people of Rutherglen, and people living in poverty in "the projects" across Glasgow, have so easily depend on rail? Sure, geography is a factor, but I think a bigger one has to do with the priorities of the state and the corporate sector. We could have a great passenger rail system in Canada and pay the workers well, if we struggled for it.

SR said...

And, of course, those 3 times that the train actually does go between Sudbury and Toronto are completely useless, schedule-wise: Toronto to Sudbury occurs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; and Sudbury to Toronto goes on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Not exactly making for a convenient weekend trip. Friday/Sunday, anyone??? I'm sure there are tons of university and college students in southern Ontario who would TOTALLY take the train up to Sudbury for a weekend at home (and vice versa) if the schedule made any sense at all.

ANd of course, the schedule doesn't match up with any of the other trains if we wanted to take the train from Sudbury to Kitchener (or London, or Windsor, or Montreal), it would involve an overnight layover. How convenient.

SR said...

....I meant to add as well....except for the Toronto-Montreal corridor, it seems that passenger rail travel in Canada is really only meant for tourism, not for actual people to get around under non-vacation circumstances.

surrogate said...

Amazing isn't it? Same here in the U.S. Train fares have gone up by about a factor of five in the last twenty years, and then they complain that no one rides them, justifying the continued elimination of more and more routes.

Reminds me of Roger Rabbit.

Chris Shannon said...

Just wanted to make a little rememberance to all the dedicated Chinese workers that died in the building of the first rails in this country.

And to add, the train system in Southern Ontario is still woefully inadeqate. The QEW and 403 to Hamilton is still jammed every evening rush hour but you can't catch a GO train to Toronto or back except at peak times.

Scott said...

Hey Chris!

Yeah, thanks for the little remembrance.

And very true about southern Ontario. I don't know if it is still true, but way back when I was covering city hall in Hamilton, the excuse for that particular problem was inadequate track capacity -- a stretch of the track that the GO Train travels between Hamilton and Toronto is owned by CN, or something like that, and they couldn't/wouldn't spare any more of that capacity diverted from their freight trains. Actually building more track would've cost many millions of dollars, and the province (with the city's support) was of a mind to sink its millions for transportation into roads.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm from Ottawa and I always take the Greyhound bus to New York city as it "only" $175 return and that's 1/3 of the train fare which is itself more than airfare! Also, it's overnight (10:15pm - 7:30am). Wish the darn seats would recline though!!!!

Loved trains as a kid, but the costs have risen out of sight.