Canada's Potemkin Village

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, February 8, 2015

There is a god in Canada, and his benevolent name is Claude. As in Claude Mongeau. In my blog last week, I suggested that the large party (106 people) accompanying Bill and Linda Schafer on their annual Moonlighter trip aboard Via Rail Canada’s eastbound Canadian plead with anyone they know at Canadian National, up to and including CEO Mongeau, for fair handling in meets with freight trains. I had been on the train a week ahead of the Schafers, and it reached Toronto 16 hours late, for no particular reason other than a slew of terribly executed meets with freight trains. I was already asleep at home by then, having gotten off in frustration at Sudbury, Ont., to fly to Toronto and then Reagan National.

Since the Moonlighters left Vancouver, B.C., Friday evening, I gotten a slew of updates from my friends aboard the train. They’re having a great time! Every siding appears to hold a freight train. As for the Canadian, it got to Edmonton, Alta., last night only a few minutes late, which is phenomenal, considering the congestion around that city.

Then today the train reached both Saskatoon and Melville, Sask., 90 minutes ahead of time. Winnipeg looks even earlier. Says one rider aboard the Lucky Express: "We sure have the railroad, it is like riding an executive train. The crew thinks that we are really important and well connected."

If this keeps up, as I hope it will, what justification ever is there for a 16-hour late arrival at the destination? None, really. So shame on CN for letting this train fall off the face of the earth almost every trip but Moonlighter weekend each winter, and shame on Via Rail Canada for letting CN do that to its flagship train. What we are seeing now is a sort of rolling Potemkin Village, meant to put a false face on reality for important visitors. Good for the important visitors, yes, but what the other 364 days of the year?

Tom Box, of Port Hope, Ont., something of an authority on the governance of passenger trains in Canada, wrote to challenge something I said last week. Tom says the Canadian Transportation Agency exists to adjudicate disputes between passenger train providers and railways, but that Via has never raised this issue publicly with the agency.

It wasn’t lost on me that practically the day that Amtrak went to the Surface Transportation Board in 2012 to exercise its right for damages from Canadian National for its mishandling of Amtrak trains, U.S. timekeeping improved dramatically. Ditto last autumn when Amtrak made the same complaint to the STB regarding Norfolk Southern’s strangling of the Capitol Limited.

What we passengers ask of a railroad is that it at least try to do the right thing. If a railroad feels it isn’t paid enough to even try, there are legal ways (at least in this country) to press the matter of compensation with Amtrak.

And if we can’t have at least a good-faith effort, I should only ride the Canadian in the company of Bill and Linda Schafer. They have the magic touch, don’t you think?—Fred W. Frailey   

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