We have all heard that the “Industrial Age” precipitated our climate change woes. And we all know that the Industrial Age began with the invention of stationary and later “locomotive” boilers to produce steam that would drive machinery and enable cars to be drawn along rails for easier transportation.
In fact, the steam locomotive was the marvel and the defining economic icon of the 19th century.
Steam locomotion ended almost abruptly in the mid-20th century when diesel-electric and electric power ended the “steam” era.
In fact electric power had come to urban transportation (trams, street cars, interurbans, underground railways and later “light rail”) as early as the end of the 19th century.
In densely populated parts of the world, such as in Europe, China and Japan, electrification has been standard for decades (even though one may question in some parts the continued use of coal to generate the required electricity … ). India is working on it and Amtrak electrified the North East Corridor two decades ago.
The legacy of “steam” is the mass transportation of goods and people. Ironically, rail transportation of any kind remains the most green-house emission-friendly form of locomotion per ton-mile moved, no matter what energy form is used.
So where are we at in Canada?
Many medium-sized and most smaller towns have no rails anymore. For those that do, the only trains that pound through are long freight trains - unless they are on one of VIA Rail’s rapidly-dwindling routes and therefore still have a station. For the others that may still have rails, all they see are local (short line) freight operations and the state of the track will be down to around 10-20 km/hour.
Bulk commodity freight rules the rails. If you need a new car, it’s right there for you. If you need to move your body, if you're not on one of the few VIA routes that are left, you’re plumb out of luck. Even if you are, you may have to figure out on which day there is a train.
Long distance passenger transportation (except for Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal) is dead or dying. The passenger trains that do exist spend a lot of their time in sidings to let the bulk commodity freight trains get there on time. Transcontinental passenger service is a cruel joke.
Railways are part of the solution in combatting climate change with their ability to get people out of their cars, and for short hauls, out of the airports. Yet VIA Rail is dying a slow death, because providing a reasonable and reliable passenger network is seen as a money loser and not as an investment in our future. In Canada, we just don’t seem to be able to “get it”. Why not? It is not difficult to finger lack of political will as the reason.
The invention that got us into the climate change pickle can help get us out, but here in Canada we are still waiting for that “penny to drop”. It looks as if it will be until hell freezes over. Literally.