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MP rides rails from Toronto to Smithers in 6-day bid for better service

Taylor Bachrach wants to see an increased emphasis on passenger rail across the country
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach made it home to Smithers just prior to Christmas after six days of train travel from Toronto. Taylor Bachrach Facebook

By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter JASPER FITZHUGH

Rail passenger service is an amazing way to travel and the trip across Canada is magical, says Taylor Bachrach, the NDP’s federal transportation critic and MP for the B.C. riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley.

Magical though it may be, it doesn’t have any clout on this country’s railways.

In mid-December, Bachrach set out on a 4,500-km cross-country journey using Canada’s national passenger rail service. He took Via Rail from Toronto on Dec. 17, took an impromptu one-day layover for a family visit, and ended up home on Dec. 24.

The train rolled into Smithers only 20 minutes behind schedule. That’s not bad, you might think.

“To think that 100 years ago, that trip took less time than it does today,” he said during his morning stop in Jasper three days after he left Ontario.

He wasn’t just traveling via Via as a great way to see the country. A large part of it also afforded him the opportunity to talk to other passengers and members of Canada’s rail towns about the importance of passenger rail.

The issue at hand is that if a passenger train and a freight train are trying to access the same track, the former must give right of way to the latter.

“Because of the shared tracks and freight priority, passenger rail is a difficult option for many people when it comes to basic transportation.”

The week before his trip, he introduced the Rail Passenger Priority Act in Parliament. It calls for a reversal of these priorities through an amendment of the Canada Transportation Act.

His reasoning relies not on how amazing and magical train travel is, but on how it’s an important and necessary means of transportation. The nearly 100,000 residents of his riding are just one group of people who rely on the service. They often experience long delays while standing by for freight traffic to pass to and from the Port of Prince Rupert through Smithers then Prince George and Jasper.

“There are a lot of people who live in rural Canada that don’t drive or can’t drive and need to get to neighbouring communities for appointments, for shopping, for family.”

Still, there is the argument that the demand for freight transportation on railways is greater. An average count of Jasper’s rail traffic tallies close to 20 freight trains and only a few passenger trains.

Without diminishing the importance of freight trains, Bachrach says that it’s a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Greyhound buses are already gone, and so transportation options are dwindling.

“I think the difficulty that the passenger train has maintaining a schedule erodes its potential customer base. As a result, you end up in a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle. If passenger trains in Canada had priority like they do in the United States, it would be easier for people to use them as basic transportation,” he said.

He hopes to use that American example for what he’s trying to do here in Canada.

Beyond the simple necessity of people getting from one place to the next, there is the greater benefit of mass transit, he says.

“In a climate crisis, it’s important that we try to get people out of their cars, that we use more efficient, cleaner modes of transportation. As countries around the world have shown, the train is a magnificent way to do that. But we’re miles behind the rest of the world when it comes to passenger rail. There are a whole bunch of things that we need to do as a country, if we want to catch up.”

For his trip, he started to record all of the time that his train had to pause while freight passed by. It didn’t take long before he stopped keeping track: it happened all too frequently and especially at night when he wasn’t able to make notes.

Bachrach also calls transportation one of the basic building blocks of national unity. He hopes that the Rail Passenger Priority Act will eventually come forward for debate as a private member’s bill.

“I describe myself as hopeful more than optimistic. I do think it’s a huge opportunity for Canada to use passenger rail to bring our country together and to address some of the big challenges we face.”

READ ALSO: Via Rail tells MPs passengers stuck on train for 18 hours were in ‘unique’ situation

READ ALSO: Bachrach renews call for public bus service in northwest B.C.