Resurgence of railroads is long overdue

Many of us still recall the excitement engendered by railroads. The sound of train whistles triggers all kinds of profound emotions, perhaps in way like church bells.

Yet, not since the 1930s when the Orient Express travelled across Europe and the then modern Zephyr first become operational, have railroads seemed so exciting. Years of declined and neglect have gone by as car and airline traffic turned our attention away from railroads. It is not surprising that governments in North America spend huge sums on highways and airport terminals while railroads were neglected. Now a change is taking place.

In Europe and Japan governments are making tremendous investments in high-speed trains. They are magnetic levitation and new motors to guide and propel trains on a cushion of air along a concrete track. These trains in many cases are full-scale commercial operations. More than a decade ago a 250 miles per hourlink between Hamburg and Berlin began a regular service. A French train, Grande Vitesse, travels between Paris and Brussels with a speed close to 200 miles per hour. A Spain counterpart goes to Madrid and Seville and has an average speed of more than 130mph. the Italian and Japanese all have  or are in the process of introducing their own high-speed railroads.

New technology is not the only reason for the renewed interest in railroads. It is becoming obvious that trains’ chief competitors function very unsatisfactorily. Auto congestion is virtually a nightmare around almost every city centre, plus pollution is so bad that the public is prompting politicians to figure out how to restrain road traffic, either by imposing toll roads or other regulations.

Cities in Britain and Italy are devising ways to exclude cars from their central cities. Plane travel everywhere is onerous, with passengers obligated to arrive at airports hours before departure time, and then they are subject to screening that is intrusive and very annoying. As a result, the peak of enthusiasm for the automobile ended long ago and similarly, plane travel is far from pleasant.

Hence, now there is a shift in the relative merits of different means of transport. All this is aided by a long overdue move to deregulation of railroads. Canada is lagging, but even now more attention is being paid to helping railroads.

Our governments, both federal and provincial, and those of other nations gradually are being convinced of the case for more investment in railroads. The old image of railroads being merely consumers of government subsidies with little payoff slowly is being replaced.

Railroads thus have every reason to expect a reversal in their fortunes. That is coming as a result of new technology and the fact that reliance on cars and planes no longer are good alternatives. As passenger numbers increase with better marketing and consumer friendly services and governments respond to new realities, railways will have a bright future.



Bruce Whitestone