Visionary or delusional?

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June 24, 2008: Day trippers pour off  the train chartered by M&M for the Hudson Village Theatre for the launch of their summer season. Early showgoers could attend the matinee, then hang out in Hudson while the later crowd took in the evening show after a day strolling through town.

Hudsonites may remember this. For a town struggling to reverse the demise of its Main Street retail, the sight of a trainload of day trippers spending a vehicle-free day shopping, dining and playgoing was all it took to launch talk of a resurgent local economy. (Many visitors said there wasn’t enough to see or do to fill the time, but that’s another issue.)

The idea of train travel generates a lot of feel-good baggage, especially for we who  grew up with a dozen daily trains and the Sunday-morning Hangover Special. Old photos are a reminder of what Hudson has lost as service dwindled to a single commuter train weekday mornings and evenings and shuttlebuses, collectively costing taxpayers roughly $270,000 a year.

One of Hudson’s perennial debates is whether subsidizing public transport is worth it. The late mayor Steve Shaar used to quip it was cheaper to buy a car for every one of those taking the train. Since then, I’ve realized the extent to which the taxpayer  subsidizes the use of the car (and the driver doubly so). I’m running into more and more people done with a three-hour commute, traffic and lost personal time. I’m also meeting Millennials who reject car ownership and the illusion of personal freedom it conveys.

Is there a social shift underway in Vaudreuil-Soulanges? With a population topping 150,000 and 15% growth between censuses, is it sustainable enough to attract investment in an hourly light-rail shuttle between Rigaud, Hudson’s heritage stations and the bus/rail terminus in Vaudreuil? Will the new Réseau express métropolitain (REM) line terminating in northern Ste. Anne de Bellevue eventually cross the Ottawa River via the Ile aux Tourtes bridge replacement planned for 2028? Shouldn’t we be planning now for what will happen a decade away?

Hudson’s current administration has just begun its second year in office. Council’s orientations include a planning exercise that may or may not result in changes to  transport-oriented development (TOD) established by the previous council. Under current densification designations and Hudson’s 10-year-old master plan, the town has limited control over the size and social impact of multi-unit developments within the current one-kilometre TOD zone. It’s another of those inherited headaches we’re having to deal with.

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AMT morphs into EXO: Beginning in 2018, locomotives, railcars, ticket operations and everything else of an operational nature will be rebranded. Why? Because.

It was with these thoughts that I headed to Trois-Rivières last Friday for the Nov. 9 Forum municipal sur le transport ferroviaire sponsored by the Union des municipalités du Québec. Alone and by car, onto the island on the 40, off the island via the 13 to the 640, to the 40. There is simply no other means getting to and from Trois-Rivières in less than 24 hours — the amount of time it took by steamboat 150 years ago.

The forum drew some 150 participants from throughout the province. During that afternoon’s interactive online survey, we learned that 96% of us arrived by car —most by ourselves. (I confess to not having made an effort to carpool with Hudson mayor Jamie Nicholls and Rigaud’s Hans Gruenwald.)  I met mayors, prefects and councillors from among the 500 Quebec municipalities transected by at least one operating rail line. Most of those I spoke with said their priorities were public security and moving freight. Public mass transit wasn’t at the top of most attendees’ lists of priorities despite UMQ president and Drummondville mayor Alexandre Cusson’s opening remarks warning us the planet is at a turning point, that sustainable transport is an essential next step and we, the municipalities, have to sell this to our residents.

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The 2013 Lac Mégantic oil train explosion has become an essential component in every discussion of rail safety. Have skinflint branch-line operations been made safer as a result? We have Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s word.

With Lac Mégantic mayor Diane Morin in the audience and Transport Canada’s role in creating conditions for the 2013 oil train explosion fresh in many minds, federal transport minister Marc Garneau concentrated on vaunting his government’s doubling of the number of Transport Canada inspectors and investment in level crossing safety. He was followed by Infrastructure and Communities Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who touted the many areas in which the feds and the provinces can partner on rail transport projects.

Quebec’s new CAQ government declared itself behind whatever François Legault promised during the election campaign. In his maiden speech as transport minister, François Bonnardel touched on everything from passenger service in the Gaspé to developing Contrecoeur, on the South Shore downriver from Montreal, as Quebec’s new containerport and intermodal terminus. He noted how the premier is involved “haut et fort” in Via Rail’s plans to double service to Quebec’s smaller population centres — like Trois-Rivières. Again, Bonnardel’s emphasis was on the need to partner with Ottawa and municipalities and to let citizens know what’s happening.

Corporate interests were heavily represented by lobbyists and the forum’s panelists. VIA Rail CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano shared a glowing report (below) of VIA Rail’s blue-sky expansion plans for eastern Canada. CN executive president Sean Finn delivered a jolly hundredth-anniversary cheer for CN’s Quebec operations (2,038 miles of track, eight major clients across Canada) and a bold mission statement: we’re ready to help you move goods while removing trucks from Quebec’s highways. He made it clear people-moving isn’t part of CN’s mandate.

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CP mixed-freight train chugs past Vaudreuil-Dorion development. Transport Canada has added more than 100 inspectors. Is that a guarantee of zero risk when municipalities have no way of knowing what is being transported before the fact?

Stéphane Forget, chairman and CEO of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, was alone in mentioning Montreal’s Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light rail transit system due to start moving Greater Montreal residents in 2021. The big challenge in building new lines or reviving old ones, he added, is finding the financing.

Last up at the podium was Martin Soucy, CEO of the Alliance de l’industrie touristique, who tried to convince the crowd Quebec rail tourism can become world-class if enough money is thrown at it.

  • La présentation de monsieur Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, président et chef de la direction de Via Rail;
  • La présentation de monsieur Sean Finn, président exécutif des services corporatifs et chef de la direction des Affaires juridiques du CN;
  • La présentation de monsieur Stéphane Forget, président-directeur général de la Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec;
  • La présentation de monsieur Martin Soucy, président-directeur général de l’Alliance de l’industrie touristique;

The forum produced a formal declaration, the Déclaration de Trois-Rivières, creating a UMQ’s rail transportation committee dedicated to making rail transport safer, more competitive and more convenient. Like the day’s event, I found the declaration to be vague and flabby — deliberately so. Is the focus on moving freight more cheaply,  more safely and conveniently? In that case, what happens on lines where passenger rail schedules are forced to mesh with freight? Greater Montreal’s commuter lines — and their users — pay the price in dependability and frequency.

Environmental concerns got the requisite lip service. The UMQ commissioned a CROP poll which found nearly nine out of 10 Quebecers (87%) use their cars for trips of 100 or more kilometres, compared to 4% who take the train. Fewer than one in four (22%) use the train as an alternative to driving. At the same time, more than a third (37%) of those polled think government should invest in public transit by rail because it’s the best existing alternative to the car. One in four (28%) say it’s because rail transit reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, a significant percentage of those who say we need more rail transportation aren’t using it now.

In one aspect, the Forum was an incredible success. Everyone with business in rail was there and available. I walked into a conversation between La Megantic’s mayor Diane Morin and François Rebello, a former PQ-turned-ADQ MNA who now lobbies on behalf of municipalities looking to resurrect disused rail lines for freight and passenger service. Morin told me her town’s chief concern is ensuring its industrial park has punctual freight service. What about passenger service? The line is too old and bumpy to allow passenger trains.

We talked with Jean Bouchard, the mayor of Mirabel, a sprawling suburb north of Montreal. Like Hudson, Mirabel is part of the 82-municipality Montreal Metropolitan Community and Bouchard sits on the board of the Réseau de transport métropolitain (RTM), the organism responsible for developing MMC public transit policy. Despite being crisscrossed with old rail lines, Mirabel has no rail commuter service. A new station is planned as part of Exo’s St. Jerome commuter rail line, but there’s no hard completion date.

Bouchard explained how the RTM is responsible for policy, while Exo, the aptly named melange of ARTM, AMT, STM and a half-dozen other public transit entities, oversees operations. Most of the conversation centred on the dog’s breakfast of schedules, services and bad decisions the RTM is having to work its way through in creating a single public transit structure that will guarantee the same level of service throughout the MMC.  It wasn’t encouraging, but I took some relief from knowing Quebec’s best entrepreneurial minds are on the job.

As I made the 150-minute drive back to Hudson via the 40, 640, 13, 40 and 342 in steadily worsening Friday-afternoon traffic I wondered what it will take to break Quebec’s addiction to personal transportation. Ever-longer commutes won’t do it, because for many, the commute by public transit is still longer and less convenient. Either deliver on promises such as those made at the UMQ Forum, or continue to pretend there isn’t a worsening public transit crisis.

 

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