Categories
Canada Intercity Rail Ontario Travels

Passenger trains of Northern Ontario

6876541686_61533293ef_o.jpg
Southbound Northlander train arriving at Gravenhurst, March 2012

In a few weeks, I will travel from Toronto to Thunder Bay by bus and by train, stopping at cities and towns like Sudbury, Chapleau, White River, Marathon, and Schreiber. I expect to write about the experience and the challenges of getting around Northern Ontario without a car. At one time, it was possible to take just one bus or train from Toronto or Ottawa to Thunder Bay. Now, the same trip can only be done in three separate segments.

Greyhound Canada, which once ran four daily bus trips between Toronto and Winnipeg, reduced service to just two daily trips in 2009, and then to just one trip in 2015. Greyhound pulled out completely from Western and Northern Canada in October 2018, cutting all its bus routes between Whitehorse, Vancouver, and Sudbury.

According to the joint Canadian National/Canadian Pacific railway schedule of 1976, there were daily passenger trains connecting Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto with North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Kapuskasing. There was also a daily train between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and there were trains to Fort Frances, and several trains a week through the wilderness in Algoma District.

Most of those trains are now gone. The CP Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie train lasted just one more year, before being eliminated in 1977. The 1990 cuts to VIA Rail resulted in the loss of the daily Canadian through Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and North Bay, and the end of direct rail service to Timmins and Kapuskasing. The Canadian, now operating on the less scenic and less-populated CN mainline, ran just three times a week, with only a shuttle service on the most remote section of the CP route between Sudbury and White River.

21589509683_e1c3df65b0_o
VIA Rail RDC stopped at Cartier, Ontario on its way to White River

In 2012, the Liberal provincial government announced the elimination of the Northlander, a daily train operated by Ontario Northland between Toronto, North Bay, and Cochrane. This decision was made with the intention of “modernizing” Ontario Northland, the provincial Crown corporation that operates freight and passenger rail and coach buses in northeastern Ontario. In 2014, the federal Conservative government cancelled the subsidy to run thrice-weekly Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. (A popular excursion train still operates to Agawa Canyon.)

Though I was too young to travel on my own when the devastating 1990 VIA Rail cuts were made, I was able ride the Northlander and the Algoma Central Railway passenger trains while they were still operating.

With a friend from Calgary, I rode the Northlander from to Toronto to Cochrane and back, in May 2012. We continued to Moosonee near the shores of James Bay coast on the Polar Bear Express, which continues to operate. I made a second trip on the Northlander from Cochrane to Toronto in September 2012.

Ontario Northland continues to operate a freight railway, scheduled coach buses, and the Polar Bear Express, a mixed train between Cochrane and Moosonee. There are no all-season roads to Moosonee, so the train remains a lifeline for the James Bay community. We also took that train in May 2012.

In February 2014, after learning that Canadian National (owner of Algoma Central) was planning on discontinuing the local ACR passenger service, a friend and I made the trip to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the train all the way to Hearst and back. It was an especially memorable ride because of the deep snow, as well as the opportunity to take photographs from the vestibules between the rail cars. We traveled with a group of snowmobilers from Wisconsin (their Ski-Doos were in a baggage car) as well as local residents heading to their cabins.

Categories
Canada History Travels

A visit to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

IMG_0319-001New Glasgow City Hall

After our wedding, we went away to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I’ve been to Halifax and the Annapolis Valley once before, in April 2004, but I’ve never been to Cape Breton (which has become one of my favourite places in Canada), or PEI.

It was a wonderful trip. We drove the Cabot Trail, hiked several trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, enjoyed great meals featuring local seafood, visited restored historic sites such as the Fortress of Louisbourg, and spent some time wandering around Halifax and Charlottetown. I’ll write more on those adventures later.

Driving through Nova Scotia on the way to Cape Breton, you must pass through Pictou County on Highway 104, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Most travelers pass through, or stop off the highway for gas or food. But the region has an interesting history, and we visited two historic sites there which are off most tourists’ radar.

Once an industrial powerhouse, settlements such as New Glasgow, Stellarton, and Trenton have been hit by the closures in the steel industry and in coal mining. Trenton had a large steel mill; the TrentonWorks plant produced rail cars until 2007. Coal mining was also important to both northern Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton, but today, only one surface coal mine remains in the province near Stellarton. Today, Stellarton might be most known as the hometown of and headquarters for the Sobeys supermarket chain and its parent company, Empire Corp. The town of Pictou was known for its shipbuilding industry.

New Glasgow, which we visited, is the largest community in Pictou County, and the regional centre for central Nova Scotia. We stayed in New Glasgow overnight, as we were to take the Northumberland Ferry to PEI early the next morning.


In 1947, Viola Desmond, a successful Black entrepreneur, was removed by police from the Roseland Theatre for refusing to sit in the upper segregated seating area, but in the ‘whites only’ section. She was charged and convicted for tax evasion – the one cent difference in the provincial amusement tax between the ticket she was sold and the lower level seating. Despite this injustice, the apology and pardon from the Nova Scotia government didn’t come until 2010. That year, a plaque was unveiled in New Glasgow. Since then, there has been more recognition of this injustice and of Desmond’s importance — a new ferry was named for her in Halifax, and she will appear on the next issue of the $10 bank note.

IMG_0318-001
Roseland Theatre building, June 30, 2017

Today, the Roseland Theatre is closed (the theatre later became a club). I found the building (which is being renovated, and the marquee removed), but I had trouble finding the plaque. I found out it was located two blocks away from the theatre building, next to the public library.

IMG_0323-001
The plaque commemorating Viola Desmond is located two blocks away from the Roseland Theatre

IMG_0321-001


 

On May 9, 1992, sixteen miners were killed in a methane and coal gas explosion at the nearby Westray Mine. News of the explosion, and coverage of the attempted rescue efforts was one of the first major news stories I clearly remember, and the first I really understood. I was eleven when it happened. (Though I also remember the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, I was eight years old at the time, and I couldn’t understand the significance. Westray was the first news story that I remember and which I could understand clearly.)

Tragically, eleven bodies remain underground. The mining company ignored unsafe working conditions, and the government was complicit in knowing about the problems but not forcing changes — the Westray mine promised jobs, not only in the mine, but in other local industries, such as TrentonWorks, which was contracted to supply rail cars for shipping coal to a nearby power generation station. The mine had lots of support at all three levels of government; this likely contributed to pressure to keep it open despite serious safety concerns. Furthermore, criminal proceedings against the company and its management were botched.

IMG_0316-001Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park, New Glasgow

Though the main Westray Mine site and shaft were located at Plymouth, to the south of New Glasgow, the explosion took place north of Highway 104, within the city limits. Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park is located close to the site. Besides a garden and a monument with all sixteen men’s names, there are several interpretative plaques on the history of the Westray Mine, the explosion, and the aftermath.

Categories
Brampton Canada Travels Urban Planning

A check-up on Downtown Barrie

IMG_8357-001
“Spirit Catcher” by Ron Baird on Downtown Barrie’s Waterfront

Last weekend, I made a trip up to Barrie on GO Transit. Most people in the Greater Toronto Area know of Barrie as a place you pass on Highway 400 on the way north to Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, or Muskoka, but it has a population of 140,000 people, many of them commuters to the Greater Toronto Area.

Barrie features a lovely waterfront, situated at the end of Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay. After the abandonment of the Canadian National Railway tracks north of Allandale Station in 1997, a new waterfront trail was created and Lakeshore Drive moved inland to provide more park space. The waterfront trail connects on the north with a rail trail that extends to Orillia. The waterfront has three swimming areas, a marine, food concessions, playgrounds, and gardens. On a warm Sunday in March, the boardwalk and waterfront paths were very well used. Work is being completed on further enhancements to the public realm.

IMG_8386-001A busy March Sunday on Barrie’s waterfront

In 2012, GO Transit extended the Barrie line to Allandale Waterfront Station, at the closest point possible to Downtown Barrie where tracks remained. The old Allandale Station, built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1905 and abandoned by CN in the 1980s, still stands just north of the GO station, newly restored. Yet the station is fenced off and is awaiting re-use.

IMG_8372-001.JPGAllandale Station is fully restored on the outside, but remains fenced off. The GO Station is to the far left.

Downtown Barrie hosts many heritage buildings. Despite a catastrophic fire in 2007, the downtown core boasts a mostly-intact inventory of heritage commercial and institutional buildings. The old Carnegie Library was incorporated into the MacLaren Art Centre (a new central library was built in the 1980s). The Queen’s Hotel on Dunlop Street, established in the 1850s, retains its historical veranda. Brampton and other county towns had similar hotels, but many were lost to fire or development.

The downtown business improvement area has been active as well. During the summer months, patios are brought out into the streets, and festivals are put on year-round. New condominium towers built along the waterfront and downtown bring new residents that can support the historic city centre.

Despite my positive impressions, one thing really bothered me: Downtown has many signs posted reminding people of a 2004 by-law prohibiting “aggressive behaviour, panhandling, loitering, and skateboarding/bicycling” with a maximum fine of $5000. Surveillance cameras are positioned at several downtown corners.

IMG_8396-002Sign reminding of Downtown Barrie’s Zero Tolerance Bylaw. The historic Queen’s Hotel is in the background.

The intent of the rule against cycling probably refers to bicycles ridden on sidewalks, rather than on roadways (there are some bicycle lock-up locations downtown and along the waterfront). That said, the signage and the by-law have the effect of telling young people and low-income residents that they are not welcome.

Signs and specific bylaws such as this are not uncommon in Ontario. In Brampton, signs in public parks and along its pathways prohibit loitering as well. Yet sidewalks and parks are public spaces; parks in particular are places where one might wish to relax, have a picnic, or just sit and enjoy nature or to people-watch.

IMG_2362-001.JPG“No loitering” in Brampton’s parks

Downtown Barrie has struggled with poverty, vacant lots, derelict properties on the periphery, as well as crime, such as assaults, and drug trafficking. Downtown Barrie has many of the support services for economically and socially marginalized people; there are affordable rental apartments and rooming houses in the core as well. Downtown has several cafes and restaurants, a few clothing and furniture stores, as well as a craft brewery, but many of the businesses along the main streets are convenience stores, hair salons, vape shops, tattoo parlours, bars, and nightclubs. Especially missing are businesses such as a drug store, and a supermarket.

To discourage loitering, benches were removed from Dunlop Street, Barrie’s main street. However, seniors in particular benefit from places to sit and rest while going on walks or doing shopping. Payphones downtown were also removed in 2013; the local councillor said that they were “degrading the quality of the neighbourhood.”

In 2014, the City of Hamilton was looking at adopting a similar by-law to discourage low-income and homeless people congregating and creating a nusiance in Downtown Hamilton. Councillor Jason Farr pointed to Downtown Barrie’s success, but noted the importance of consulting with poverty advocates to “include that social side of the argument.”

Instead of merely implementing aggressive regulations and ticketing, there’s a need for inclusive urbanism. Are there adequate recreational and social activities for youth and marginalized populations? Barrie has a skateboard/BMX park nearby, at Queen’s Park, but that might not be enough to satisfy local youth. What urban interventions would Barrie’s low income populations like to see? Sadly, I doubt they were consulted.

Barrie’s waterfront is one of Ontario’s best: accessible by transit, connected to its downtown, hosting many activities and events. As construction concludes, it should help revitalize the neighbourhoods around it. Barrie should not further push away its already marginalized populations; it should find a way to be welcoming to all.

Categories
Canada Intercity Rail Politics

The future… never!

IMG_6258-001

High speed rail: it’s an idea that has been talked about in Canada since the 1960s. But sadly, in 2016, we’re still just talking about it.

I’m a big fan of passenger rail. I’ve rode on most of VIA’s network, from coast to coast, as well as several long distance Amtrak lines in the United States, as well as trains in Britain, Continential Europe, and China. I enjoyed riding high speed rail (HSR) trains between London, Paris, and Amsterdam, but I also appreciate a leisurely cross-country ride. In Canada, the train isn’t very fast, nor is it very reliable, but it’s a comfortable, peaceful, and social way to travel. It’s still my favourite way to travel to Ottawa or Montreal.

Passenger rail — excepting commuter services such as GO Transit — declined in this country in the last 40 years, in terms of ridership, speed, and reliability. There are thousands of kilometres of track in Canada that hosted passenger trains only a few decades ago that are now torn up, the land sold off or turned into rail trails. In 1989, there were five trains a day in each direction through Kitchener and Stratford. Today, there are just two.

In 1976, a year before VIA Rail Canada was formally established, the fastest trains between Toronto and Montreal, (CN Trains 66 and 67, the famous Turbo,) were scheduled to take 4 hours and 10 minutes, stopping only at Guildwood and Dorval.

Today, the fastest train between Canada’s two largest cities, Train 68 from Toronto, takes 4 hours and 42 minutes, if it’s running on time. (It didn’t on Wednesday, March 23, arriving 41 minutes late into Montreal.) And there are only six direct trains in each direction between the two cities.

VIA Train 68 Status - March 23 2016
Delays, despite longer scheduled travel times, are common on the Corridor

While commuter rail services are expanding in Toronto and Montreal, passenger service has not. Since being formed in 1977, VIA Rail suffered through several major cutbacks in 1981 and 1990, and minor cuts in 2004 and 2012; but VIA held on despite the neglect – – or complete disdain — of both Liberal and Conservative governments. Ridership fell, not because people didn’t like riding trains, but because governments didn’t want to fund rail services, nor did freight railways like hosting them. Roads were seen as investment; passenger rail an expense.

Categories
Canada Election Politics

Some thoughts about the 2015 election and Canada’s new government

My congratulations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. The Liberals managed to win a healthy majority government on October 19, 2015, defeating Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. I’m not completely happy with the election day results, but I think there is still plenty to be satisfied about. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic thanks to a clear Conservative defeat and the first few moves on the incoming Liberal government.