When did rail travel begin to die in Canada? I know, this is a question I’ve pondered many times, but it’s on my mind again today. It’s Father’s Day, and my Dad requested that we go some place that we hadn’t been in a long time: the Alberta Railway Museum. It’s a magical place, with dozens of restored rail cars and locomotives. And, on bright sunny weekends like this one, they fire up some of their restored locomotives and give train rides. Nothing fancy, mind you. CN has yet to give them permission to use the adjoining main line. So, they just go back and forth on their little strip of rail. When my family first visited the museum some 18 years ago or so, we were told that part of their long-term goals was to build a complete rail loop to have their trains running full time. 18 years later, and it’s still a long-term goal.
Yeah, that should give you some idea of how long ago I visited. The first time I was there, their pride and joy was a steam locomotive called the 6060. This is one of the last fully-working CN steam locomotives designed for running in the Rocky Mountains. On my first visit, the Alberta Railway Museum was rushing to finish their restoration of it, because it was slated to be on display at Expo 86. They finished the restoration in time, it went to Expo 86, and now the 6060 is owned by a Rocky Mountain Railway preservation society down in Calgary. But I’m straying off topic.
When did rail travel begin to die in Canada? I’m pretty sure it was in the late-1980s. That’s when most of Alberta’s larger towns started having their stations demolished when Via halted service to those towns. “No longer economically viable,” was the reason given. I’m certain that the final nail in the coffin was the final journey of the Canadian. I know what you’re thinking. “But Mark, the Canadian still runs! It’s the super-luxury train that Via runs from Edmonton to Vancouver through Jasper!” That is true, but I’m talking about the original Canadian. This was Via’s super-luxury train from Montreal to Vancouver, following the CP main line through Regina, Calgary, and Banff. Its final voyage had to be in 1989 or 1990. I remember that the fact Via shut down the original Canadian upset a lot of people. The pictures still stand out in my mind of protestors blocking the tracks and trying to stop the final voyage. A lot of people saw a part of Canada’s history die when Via pulled the plug on the original Canadian. And now, Via offers no service at all on the CP main line. Calgary is completely off-limits to Via Rail.
That’s not to say Calgary is completely cut-off from passenger rail service. No, now private companies have stepped up to offer super-luxury rail excursions through the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Rail Excursions have been the trendsetter and doing very well for about the past 10 years now. Only about two years ago or so, CP decided to get in on the action and started the Royal Canadian Pacific. Funny thing is, that’s not too far off from how rail travel through the Rockies originally started. Haven’t you ever wondered why most of the super-luxury hotels in the Rocky Mountains were originally owned by CP? It’s because they were the first to cash in on the scenery of the area. The founder of CP, upon gazing at Lake Louise for the first time, said the now-famous quote: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” So, right along the railway, he built the Chateau Lake Louise, and the Banff Springs Hotel, and lots of other places, and the rest is history.
Fast forward a hundred years. Now, the tourists are more likely to fly or drive in than take the train. Rail travel has evolved, at least in Canada, to be nothing more than high-speed commuter service between Toronto and Ottawa. So, the question is, how can we bring back a resurgence in rail travel?
Ideally, I’d like to see a rail system in Canada like what I saw in Japan. A train station in every town, a train every 10 minutes. Cheap, easy, reliable. But, until I become Prime Minister and can pour zillions of taxpayer dollars into Via to get them on this, I’m on my own. Since I’m sure it’s still rather expensive to start a national railway, let’s start small: an Alberta railway.
If we can get this going in Alberta, then we can apply it to the rest of the country. This province is the heart of the oil patch, so, before we have the money to build actual, real train stations, I’m sure Atco trailers will do just as well. With our stations, then we’ll need to figure out where to put them. We figure out which centres in Alberta most need the kind of rail transit we’re offering. I’m certain that Edmonton would benefit from high-speed commuters connect the city with its outlying towns: St. Albert, Sherwood Park, etc. Once that catches on, we start expanding into farther and farther outlying areas, and boom! Before you know it, we’ve built that bullet train connecting Edmonton to Calgary that the government always talks about building when the economy is doing really, really well.
This is what went through my mind as I rode back and forth and back and forth at the Alberta Railway Museum. They have so many ornate railcars that are awaiting restoration, and they can’t even afford to build a simple rail loop. Why do they even have to build a rail loop? They can squeeze out on the CN main line and run back and forth to Edmonton. Start offering the “Rail Museum Excursion.” You pick them up in Edmonton at the start of the day, take them out to the museum for a day of rail adventures and above-average-food, and then take them home on the train at the end of the day. My God, so much of this would be so simple to do. Call me crazy, but we should fight to keep our railways alive, and not just something to do on a sunny Father’s Day afternoon.