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Passenger Rail Advocacy in Canada: From flyers to youtube has anything really changed?

I walked into the VIA Rail station in Windsor in 1991 to protest VIA Rail Canada’s refusal to allow my girlfriend to purchase a CanRail Pass. They refused her because she was a Canadian. Ridiculous……It was my first real world experience with the dysfunctional state of passenger rail then and today in our country.

Back then and today, Transport 2000, (now Transport Action Canada) were, and still are, the only national passenger rail advocacy group in Canada.

I had read in the newspapers about Harry Gow, President of Transport 2000 back in 1991. His fire and brimstone passenger rail advocacy was legendary and inspired me. Moving to Guelph in 1994, I got involved with local passenger rail activists the late Mary Pappert and George Bechtel.

Mary was a no nonsense person and so was George. I had no idea at the time, just how effective they were at passenger rail advocacy. If cuts were coming or money was being made available for passenger trains, they immediately went into action. Organizing a meeting, putting up flyers, contacting media, politicians, VIA Rail management and the public.


George Bechtel and Mary Pappert - Two action orientated avocates for passenger rail.
They were action orientated using the simplest of tools to get the word out. Flyers, a press release and phone calls were their methods. They made Kitchener/Waterloo a hotbed  for rail advocacy in the 1990s and into the 2000s. It was not an easy task as VIA Rail had mainly given up on what we call the North Main rail line (NML) that goes through the area.

I also learned a very important lesson. They fought, not because they thought they could win, we rarely did win, but because it was the right thing to do.

I remember the ill-fated campaign to keep all the additional passenger rail frequencies our NML line had during the Danish Flexliner DMU trials in 1996. I was learning just how politics plays a role in almost all  passenger rail decisions in this country.
David Collenette
Minister David Collenette, Kitchener, 2001.
A good memory for our local Transport 2000 chapter, was when in 2001 VIA Rail announced a second morning train into Toronto and renovation of our Kitchener passenger rail station. It was a great day when pro-rail Minister David Collenette came to Kitchener for the arrival of our new train frequency.

We fought hard to see our community get some of the federal money for increased passenger rail service. It is hard to say what effect we had on our area getting the money, but we certainly ran a high profile campaign.

As time went on, I got cynical with Transport 2000’s unyielding support for VIA Rail and the arrogance of VIA Rail management. I decided to do something nobody in Canada was doing. Advocate for high-speed rail. A simple way was to put up a website, find all the previous studies (not an easy task) and make them freely available to the public. High Speed Rail Canada was born in 2008. The message was simple. It was to educate Canadians on high-speed rail.

There was never an intent to have any corporate sponsors or to make any money out of it. I could only give so much time to it anyway. I was married with two children, a community sport volunteer with a full time job, I simply did not have the time but I kept up the website, facebook page and had support to do our Twitter page.

The positives are obvious. As of today over 883,000 people have visited the site to educate themselves on high-speed rail. I consider that a big win.

On the negative side, I am unsure how we can get out of the quagmire of the current nonstate of high-speed rail in this country.

The lack of any passenger rail between Calgary and Edmonton is ridiculous. The present VIA Rail high fares and slow travel times are out of touch with the rest of the world.

Technology Changes

In the old days of advocacy as mentioned, you put out a press release, hoped the traditional media would do a story, put flyers on poles, and called people.

Now the traditional media no longer has the stranglehold on getting the word out. In fact there are so many ways to get the message out, the message gets distorted, lost, and often telling the truth is optional.
I just do not understand today the many people who are on forums/twitter, pontificating their views on passenger rail or high-speed rail, day after day, yet never once go out in public to advocate for change.
I see the popularity of Youtube videos with some channels and hosts, talking about Canadian passenger rail topics. They are getting thousands and thousands of views and in some cases making money from Youtube. Do they really have any impact at all on the current or future state of passenger rail in Canada?

Even with all the technology and many ways to get our message, why does Canada continue to lag behind the rest of the world in having a modern intercity passenger rail service?

More importantly, what will it take to get a member of the public or a politician to take concrete action to hopefully create much needed change in the passenger rail situation in Canada?

I know Transport Action Canada would love to have more members.

Hopefully, there will be a new generation of people advocating for high-speed passenger rail in Canada. The time for action is now.