Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Culture: What Rail Says About a Country

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Let's accept for the moment part of yesterday's premise that the appropriate way to experience a country is by train. What would we learn about North America by doing so?

In Mexico, we'd learn that we can't experience the country by train. With a few exceptions including tourist trains, long-distance and even corridor passenger rail does not exist. Passenger service was ended in 1997 as the national railway was prepared to be privatized. Bus service, some of it reasonably luxurious, has moved into the market once occupied by rail. So, what we learn about Mexico is that the gap between the rich (traveling by private vehicles and air) and the poor (traveling by bus) is so substantial that the middle-class niche normally occupied by rail is not large enough to justify infrastructure investment in long-distance passenger service in a country that does not have a lot of money to spend on transportation.

In the United States, we'd learn that there is a great deal of variation across the country. In the northeast, traditionally where the most people lived until recent generations and where national lawmakers still live, rail service is actually reasonably useful and modern. Amtrak operates high speed service on the corridor between Boston, Massachusetts and Washington DC. However, even where population density is approaching such levels in the west, state governments have had to step up and fund corridor service on their own. California, Washington, and even Illinois have had to pump state money into creating corridors that have started to rival in ridership the Northeast Corridor which is federally funded. Meanwhile, long-distance service languishes with outdated equipment and little respect from host, freight railways, with on-board service from Amtrak that is uneven at best. First class sleeper service is laughable by international standards. Many cities, including large ones like Phoenix and Las Vegas, have no service at all. Unless one lives in a privileged area (where a state pays for corridor service or the federal government funds service), one is almost on one's own in riding a train, rather like many Americans feel treated by their government in general.

Canada presents a similar but distinct picture. In the main population corridor between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City, Quebec, service is frequent and reasonably modern with good on-board service. However, it is far from world class, with no high-speed service though operator VIA Rail Canada clearly tries to do the best it can. Long-distance service is infrequent, with several routes (including the solitary transcontinental train and the train to Gaspe, Quebec) only running three times a week, but when it does run, it provides world-class service, not only to sleeping car passengers but in coach for the common person as well. Furthermore, in remote areas where service is needed, service still operates, including remote areas of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, in some cases under provincial or even Native administration. Yet, especially in the west, there are major cities, foremost Calgary, with no service at all where people have to turn to other modes. One gets the impression that Canada does not have unlimited resources, but does a good job of reaching all classes of society with what services it does have, where it does have them.

There may be something to the idea that one can learn a lot about a country from its rail system. The differences between Mexico, the United States, and Canada are reflected in what rail service is available in each country, and what it is like to ride them.

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