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About me Intercity Rail Ontario Transit

Transit Summit in Guelph this Saturday, November 9

4003585727_e8125d19a3_o.jpgCoach Canada bus to Hamilton, September 2009

This Saturday, I will be joining fellow transportation advocates and experts in Downtown Guelph for the First Annual Transit Summit & Town Hall organized by Transit Action Alliance of Guelph (TAAG).  I’ll be speaking about the gaps in regional and intercity transit in Guelph and Southwestern Ontario.

In the 1980s, there were direct buses from Guelph to Toronto, Brampton, Kitchener, Hamilton, Fergus and Elora, and Owen Sound. There were five VIA trains a day in each directions between Toronto, Guelph, Kitchener, and London. Though there are far more buses departing from Guelph than in the 1980s, they are mostly operated by GO Transit, all leading east towards Brampton and Mississauga. GO Transit rail service has improved, but it is still geared towards Toronto-bound commuters. Getting between Guelph and Hamilton by bus requires a transfer at Square One in Mississauga.

I wrote about these gaps before on my own blog and for TVO. I will be speaking more about them — and possible solutions to the problem — on Saturday.

Intercity bus links in Midwestern Ontario in 1983 and 2019.
The 1983 map is an excerpt from Ontario Intercity Guide published by Ontario Ministry of Transportation; the 2019 is an edited version of the same image. 

Other speakers at the Transit Summit include representatives from TTCRiders, TransportAction, and officials from the City of Guelph and Guelph Transit. The summit and town hall will be held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Downtown Guelph on Saturday November 9 from 12:00 to 5:30 PM.

You can register on TAAG’s website until Friday November 8.

Categories
Intercity Rail Ontario Travels

Trekking across Northern Ontario

IMG_2761-001.JPGVIA RDC train about to depart Sudbury for White River

Last month, I embarked on a journey from Toronto to Thunder Bay, a distance of over 1,300 kilometres. My journey took me nearly three days as I opted to travel by bus and rail, rather than by car or by air. Though I had to take three separate trips to accomplish it (an Ontario Northland bus, a VIA Rail RDC train, and a Kasper Transportation mini-bus), it was a very interesting trip.

IMG_2768.JPGUnloading a canoe from the RDC on the Spanish River, northwest of Sudbury

Once I arrived in Thunder Bay, I rented a car. Though I know Northeastern Ontario quite well, I had yet to visit Northwestern Ontario (a brief stop in Sioux Lookout on VIA’s Canadian notwithstanding). There are several beautiful provincial parks within a short drive of Thunder Bay, and the city itself has a few interesting sights. Highway 17 along the Lake Superior shoreline is probably Ontario’s most scenic drive.

Travelling without a car has its challenges, especially as the traveler is at the mercy of sudden schedule changes, traffic delays, and other hiccups, but it is still possible to get across Northern Ontario even after Greyhound’s withdrawal from Western Canada and Northern Ontario last year.

I wrote about my experience for TVO.

KasperBusWhiteRiver.JPGKasper Transporation bus at White River – filling the gap left by Greyhound

Categories
Canada Intercity Rail Ontario Travels

Passenger trains of Northern Ontario

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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.

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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
Infrastructure Intercity Rail Transit

Filling the gap in Southwestern Ontario

9119948871_f1716baa80_oWhile there’s GO train service between Toronto, Guelph, and Kitchener, it’s inadequate for the regions’s transportation demands 

Earlier this year, I took a ride on Wroute, a new service connecting Guelph, Kitchener, and Burlington that has some characteristics of a bus service, a taxi company, and ride-hailing app. With a fleet of Tesla Model X electric SUVs, Wroute tries fill a gap left by GO Transit and other intercity transportation operators in the Guelph-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton Triangle. It’s an interesting concept, but it is not enough to move commuters quickly, reliably, frequently and, most important, affordably.

I spoke with two Kitchener residents — James Bow, author and webmaster of Transit Toronto, and Brian Doucet, Canada Research Chair in cities planning at the University of Waterloo — to find out what the region really needs.

You can read the full article at the TVO website here.

IMG_8407-001.JPGTesla operated by Wroute at Guelph Central Station

Categories
Intercity Rail Politics Transit

A need for high-speed rail reality (Updated)

IMG_6258-001VIA Rail train at Brampton Station, on the Toronto-Kitchener rail corridor

Updated Friday May 19, 2017:

Today, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the commencement of an Environmental Assessment on bringing high-speed rail to Southwestern Ontario, connecting Toronto and Pearson Airport with Guelph, Kitchener, and London, with Phase II continuing to Windsor, with a potential stop in Chatham.

Former federal Transport Minister David Collenette was assigned to write a report on building the corridor; it is now public on the Ministry of Transportation’s website. It proposes operating speeds up to 250 km/h, making it a true high speed line (though slower than many lines in Europe and East Asia, which have cruising speeds between 270 and 320 km/h). The estimated cost of the project is estimated to be $21-billion, reducing travel times from Toronto to Windsor to a mere two hours.

figure-es-2-proposed-future-southwestern-ontario-passenger-rail-network.jpgProposed High Speed Rail system for Southwestern Ontario

An option for a 300 km/h HSR service was studied, but found to be even more expensive, requiring more dedicated tracks. The 250 km/h option will allow it to use most of the existing Toronto-London and London-Windsor corridors.

For southwestern Ontario, high speed rail could be a boon. Kitchener-Waterloo is a major educational and technological hub; faster and more frequent rail service will benefit university students, tech workers, and other commuters, perhaps those priced out of the Toronto housing market. London’s economy has taken some hits in recent years, so bringing it within commuting distance to Toronto and K-W gives residents there more options.

Between Toronto and Kitchener, the report assumes two off-peak HSR trains an hour, and one GO train every hour, making local stops. It also assumes that GO RER service will continue to terminate at Bramalea, a poor location to terminate regional rail services; Downtown Brampton is one stop away. Building the “missing link” along Highway 407 will allow many more trains to pass through Downtown Brampton, which would allow for local RER trains to be extended to west Brampton, at Mount Pleasant GO. It would be a shame if the HSR plans (which, in principle, I support) pushed aside regional and local needs.

Statford and St. Marys, which are only served by VIA trains (and no intercity coach service) will also have to be considered, as they will be bypassed by HSR. As well, towns and cities elsewhere in southwest Ontario, such as Simcoe, Tillsonburg, Wallaceburg, and St. Thomas, have no bus or rail access. For less than the $15 million pledged for the HSR EA, the province could fund several years’ worth of basic intercity bus service to connect these communities together.

Unless assumptions change, Brampton residents will see twice as many trains speed by their downtown core than stop, which I think is unfortunate. In the original post below, I was worried that high speed rail dreams would distract from more immediate needs. I’m now afraid that I was right.


Original post dated April 26, 2017

When have I heard this one before?

According to CTV News, the provincial government is looking to build a new high-speed rail line between Toronto, Kitchener, and London. The new plan, to be announced next month, is based on the work of former federal Transport Minister David Collenette.

During his time as Transport Minister under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Collenette backed incremental VIA Rail improvements, as well as VIA-FAST, a higher-speed train service between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Those proposed improvements were cancelled when Paul Martin became prime minister; currently VIA is pushing for a revised version of that previous plan. Collenette also pushed hard for a rail link between Toronto Pearson International Airport and Union Station, a fundamentally flawed proposal known as “Blue 22.” That airport rail link proposal was later relaunched as a provincial project and opened as UP Express in 2015.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca was not especially clear about the plans for such as high-speed rail service, saying “…there are multiple definitions for high-speed rail depending on what you’re looking at.” Del Duca cited “geographical limitations,” while hoping that the federal government would contribute funds towards the project.

Interestingly, only a week ago, Deputy Minister Deb Matthews (and London MPP) was downplaying the province’s plans, saying the province only promised to study, but not necessarily build, the high-speed rail corridor.

I worry that high-speed rail is a distraction. In Canada, we have an abysmal record of proposing high-speed rail projects, but never following through. Even VIA’s less ambitious plan for dedicated tracks and new equipment to provide more frequent and reliable service, with somewhat faster travel times, is not yet secure.

There is already a Toronto-Kitchener-London service; two VIA trains operate daily in each direction along the entire route, while GO Transit operates more frequent weekday trains to Brampton and four weekday round trips to Kitchener. Before the 1990 Brian Mulroney-era VIA cuts, there were five round trips on this line. In the 1980s, the fastest VIA train between Toronto, Kitchener, and London took 3 hours, 2 minutes; today, the fastest train is 3 hours, 22 minutes.

This Rick Mercer Report video will never get old

All that I want for the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor in the short-to-medium term is the same as what VIA is proposing between Toronto and Montreal:

  • Dedicated tracks. On the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, this means building a new rail corridor, known as “The Missing Link” for freight trains between Halwest (near Bramalea GO Station) and Milton. This new route would divert Canadian National (CN) freight trains that currently pass through Brampton and Georgetown on the Toronto-Chicago mainline. Potentially, Canadian Pacific (CP) trains passing through Toronto and Mississauga could also be diverted, freeing up capacity on GO Transit’s Milton Line. CN freight traffic limits the frequency and speed of GO Transit rail service to Brampton and Kitchener; moving the through freight trains would allow for frequent, electrified, GO RER service beyond Bramalea, as currently proposed. CN is interested in partnering with the province to build this link; CP has not expressed interest.Ibi Missing Link map.jpg
    Map of the “Missing Link” from a 2015 IBI Group report
  • Rail improvements. Between Georgetown and Kitchener, the railway is owned by Metrolinx, and hosts four weekday GO Transit trains in each direction, two daily VIA trains in each direction, and several Goderich-Exeter Railway (GEXR) freight trains. Track is in good shape, but has several slow sections, including a two-kilometre section west of Guelph Central Station where trains crawl at 10 miles an hour (16 km/h).

    Improving rail speeds in central Guelph will be expensive, especially where the railway runs in the middle of residential Kent Street, but it will be worth it.
    Beyond Kitchener, the track is leased and maintained by GEXR, which has allowed the rails to deteriorate. Slow speeds are acceptable by a no-frills short line freight operator, determined to minimize maintenance costs, but not so for passenger rail. VIA trains are consistently late because of the condition of track, especially between Stratford and London. Purchasing the track, installing welded rail, and improving grade crossings will substantially improve reliability and speeds on this corridor.Incremental improvements, such as grade separations, improved signalling, and new passing tracks, would permit frequent, reliable, and faster rail service.
  • A new train fleet. Via Rail’s coaches are nearing the end of their useful lives; among the rolling stock used on the Toronto-Kitchener-London service are HEP-I and HEP-II coaches built in the 1950s and refurbished several times since. GO Transit’s commuter coaches are acceptable for shorter trips, but are uncomfortable for long-distance travel. With the completion of the “Missing Link” and the acquisition of the Kitchener-London rails, it would be possible to electrify the entire corridor. Electric trains benefit from faster acceleration times, especially electric multiple units.

Some of these improvements can be started within the next year, before the 2018 provincial election. If the province wants to show that it’s serious about providing effective rail service to Kitchener and London, there’s no need for another high-speed rail study. Simply continue the work on the “Missing Link,” plan for GO RER to continue west of Bramalea GO, improve the existing rail infrastructure, and acquire the optimal fleet for medium-distance rail services. Once that is complete, planning for even higher speeds, possibly with a new purpose-built alignment, should begin.

Canadians have been teased with high-speed rail proposals that never get anywhere, meanwhile existing rail infrastructure is neglected and intercity services are cut. It’s time to get moving with a sensible plan that can start right now.

Categories
Intercity Rail Transit Urban Planning

GO Transit’s Grimsby problem

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The Bruce Trail near Fifty Road, November 6, 2016

On Sunday, November 6, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm November day to go hiking on the Bruce Trail. I started in Grimsby and hiked for 23 kilometres west to the Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument in Hamilton. The hike was lovely as there was still some fall foliage left to enjoy, and the views above the Escarpment over Niagara vineyards and Lake Ontario were spectacular.

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View of Downtown Grimsby and Lake Ontario from the top of the Niagara Escarpment

In order to do this six hour, one-way hike, I took the train to Grimsby, and began my trip from there (enjoying a coffee and snack at a great local coffee shop first). Upon arriving at Stoney Creek, I took a Hamilton Street Railway bus downtown for dinner before taking a GO bus back to Toronto.

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View from the lookout at Devil’s Punch Bowl Conservation Area towards Hamilton Harbour

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The Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument, where I ended my hike as the sun began to set


When I go for a bike ride or a hike, whether it be a solo trip or a hike with friends, I like to plan the trip in advance, and to think about the transportation options for getting there. And so I come once again to thinking about Grimsby, GO Transit, VIA Rail, and local transit.

There is currently only one train each way between Toronto and Niagara Region — Amtrak’s Maple Leaf, which is operated by VIA crews on the Canadian side of the border. The Maple Leaf takes 12 hours and 30 minutes to get from Toronto’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station, including a stop at the border for customs and immigration checks. Other delays, such as freight traffic and even ship traffic on the Welland Canal, make this train commonly late for Niagara passengers headed to Toronto in the evening. There was once a second daily VIA train between Toronto and Niagara Falls, scheduled to serve commuters, but it was cut by the Stephen Harper-led Conservative government in 2012.

img_6547-001Downtown Grimsby

GO Transit operates a summer weekend train service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, making stops at Port Credit, Oakville, Burlington, and St. Catharines, but not at Grimsby. GO Transit also operates a year-round bus service — Route 12 — that follows the QEW between Burlington GO Station and Downtown Niagara Falls, stopping at several park and ride lots and at Fairview Mall in St. Catharines, a secondary hub for local transit in that city.

The Maple Leaf Train leaves Union Station at 8:20 AM, 7 days a week, and arrives at Grimsby just after 9:30 AM, stopping only at Oakville and Aldershot. Taking GO Transit, it takes nearly two hours to get to the park and ride at Casablanca Boulevard, including the transfer time at Burlington Station.

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GO Transit Route 12

The Grimsby Amtrak/VIA station is located on Ontario Street, at a site picked by the Great Western Railway in 1853. It is a mere 5-10 minute walk to Downtown Grimsby, located in the centre of that community’s population. The GO Transit park and ride is located at the west end of town, at Casablanca Boulevard. The planned GO Transit Rail Station is located nearby. The bus stop and proposed rail station is located 3.5 kilometres from Downtown Grimsby, or a 45 minute walk.

img_6544-001Grimsby Station

The current railway station at Grimsby consists of only a small shelter and indoor waiting area, along with a small parking lot for VIA customers. The platform is small, about one rail car’s length. The VIA Rail Canada sign is almost as large as the station building itself. But for me, the railway station’s location was far more convenient than the GO bus stop at Casablanca Boulevard.

A new station at Casablanca Boulevard offers several advantages for GO Transit: easy access to the Queen Elizabeth Way, plenty of undeveloped land for a parking lot, and room for a platform for GO Transit’s 10-car and 12-car trains. But the location is not friendly for customers who wish to walk or cycle to the train, and without a local transit system, it’s inaccessible for many potential Grimsby commuters unless they were to take a taxi, get a ride, or drive their own car.

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Overlooking the QEW/Casablanca Boulevard interchange and the proposed location of the Grimsby GO Station. GO buses serve the park-and-ride lot in the middle ground. Note the clear view across the lake to Toronto.

I have argued here before that GO Transit has an unfortunate record of catering to motorists while mostly ignoring the needs of many of its current and potential customers. GO Transit’s need for large parking lots often precludes locating stations in more urban locations. By providing ‘free’ parking, GO forces all passengers to subsidize those who drive alone to its stations.

Of course, GO Transit is going to build Grimsby Station at Casablanca Boulevard; it was announced earlier this year as part of a GO service expansion project. But a useful local transit system, scheduled to connect with GO trains and buses, offering fare integration, can mitigate this problem. Transit riders shouldn’t be told to take a hike.

Categories
Intercity Rail Travels

To Stratford by Train

IMG_6135-001.JPGVIA Train 85 at Stratford Station, October 8, 2016

On Thanksgiving weekend, my partner and I made the trip out to Stratford to get away from Toronto for two days and see two shows: Macbeth and The Hypochondriac. Both plays were excellent, and we had a lovely time strolling through Stratford’s downtown and parks as well. We took the train to Stratford, unfortunately it’s not a very convenient option for festival goers, nor for anyone visiting Stratford or for those who live there.

Categories
Intercity Rail Travels

Cuba’s Hershey Train: the last interurban railway

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Last week, my partner-in-crime and I escaped to Cuba for a short vacation. Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, we decided to spend our time in Havana instead.

Havana is a fascinating place that’s worth exploring beyond the popular spots such as the picturesque Old City, Revolution Square, and the Cristóbal Colón Cemetery; like any great city, it is best explored by foot.

One of our highlights was getting an impromptu tour of the José Martí National Library of Cuba in Havana. The library, named for the Cuban national hero, is adjacent to Plaza de la Revolución. The Plaza also holds the seat of the Communist Government and is famous for the towering monument of Martí and the metal mural of Che Guevara.

We met a wonderful guide, who with great pride described the library’s programs, but also the effects of the 55-year American embargo on obtaining educational materials, up-to-date computers and access to the Internet and other digital resources. We were fortunate for experiences like that, where we met interesting people and learned a bit more about the country. These were experiences that tourists staying at beachside resorts, perhaps visiting Havana on a bus tour or to see a cabaret show, sadly miss.

But, being on vacation, we made sure to spend some time to relax and enjoy the hot — yet pleasantly non-humid — weather. So we decided to go to the beach for our last full day in Cuba. But instead of taking the tourist buses, we decided to hop on the Hershey Train, probably the last true interurban railway in the Americas.

Interurban railways once existed all over Canada and the United States. Electrically-powered trains linked towns and cities together, providing passenger and local freight services and filling a niche between urban streetcars and long-distance steam railways. Improved roads, and increased car and truck ownership resulted in the closure of just about every interurban railway in North America, the last to close in Canada was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway in 1959. A few remnants of North America’s interurban lines survive as modernized commuter services, such as the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. But Cuba’s Hershey Train still looks, and operates, like the electric railways that once crisscrossed much of southwestern Ontario and the eastern United States.

Categories
Canada Intercity Rail Politics

The future… never!

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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.