Liberally Railroaded – Funding Senegal to Build a New Railway?
By Greg Gormick
Canada’s freight railways and its publicly-owned passenger carrier, VIA Rail, have never been in worse shape, despite the frantic efforts of their flacks to tell us the opposite. But have no fear. The Trudeau government has come up with a brilliant plan to fix this mess: Loan $4.5 billion to Senegal to build a new double-track railway.
The economic, social, and environmental ramifications of this bizarre decision by Ottawa’s Export Development Corporation (EDC) will be staggering. Canada can rarely get a freight or passenger train across the country on time, but we’re going to ship railway investment dollars to Africa.
Lucky Senegal, which will now enjoy the fruits of a free-spending, taxpayer-funded policy that was first unfurled by Pierre Trudeau’s government in the 1970s. Back then, a steady flow of foreign railway loans and gifts made Canada look like a Sugar Plum Fairy on the international stage – and propped up begging Canadian firms with Liberal ties, especially Bombardier.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, the Liberals are self-inflating their image by boasting about their commitment to such fantasies as building a new passenger-only line on a Canadian Pacific (CP) line abandoned a half-century ago because it was inferior to the one the same railway built as a replacement. The Grits call their wonky dream scheme high-frequency rail. It will supposedly get VIA’s passenger trains off the overloaded CN lines and make them marvels of modern rail travel. It won’t make them any faster, but pish-tosh to such nit-picking.
The idea of just expanding and upgrading those CN lines shared with vital freight trains and perhaps making some use of the lightly used parallel CP lines has been kicked wayside by the Liberal “experts” – who no doubt have their eyes on vulnerable ridings such as Peterborough. It’s pure VIA empire building and Liberal vote chasing.
If this African railway loan and the VIA fantasy aren’t enough, there are the daily disasters that are VIA, CP, and our former Crown-owned railway, Canadian National, which was privatized in 1995 by Jean Chretien’s Liberals following a plan constructed by Brian Mulroney’s Tories.
I see the daily reports on freight and passenger train delays across the country. It’s enough to make anyone with a multi-generational railway bloodline like mine weep. Once we were held up as an international model of railway efficiency, but Canada seemingly can’t make the trains run on time anywhere. The most ridiculous situation I’ve seen recently involved a CP train on CN tracks in a zone where the two share their lines in B.C. The CP locomotive caught fire on CN’s tracks in an area where suspicions have been raised about possible railway involvement in the deadly Lytton fires. Traffic was snarled in both directions on both railways as a result of this little oops.
As for VIA, it is a disaster buried under an avalanche of vacuous press releases from its Liberal-appointed board (one a failed Grit office-seeker) and its CEO, whose previous transportation experience includes working for a helicopter manufacturer.
Is there a better way to run a railroad? You bet your caboose there is. Resisting the “greenie in a bottle” approach of too many overly-woke Democrats, the Biden Administration’s pending infrastructure bill includes $66 billion over five years to incrementally improve and expand Amtrak – the U.S. equivalent of VIA – to finally become the high-performance national passenger railway it always should be.
Some of Amtrak’s trains – many with Bombardier-built rolling stock secured under generous EDC loans provided by the Mulroney and Chretien governments – operate over Warren Buffett’s wholly-owned Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Not wanting the false and inflated quarterly dividend treadmill that CP, CN, and many other U.S. railways are on, Buffett told BNSF execs at the time of his purchase that he wanted steady reinvestment in the railway’s physical plant to build a sustainable stream of profits.
As I survey and assess this situation as part of the research for my upcoming book on the life, near-death, and future (if any) of Canada’s passenger and freight trains, I can’t help but feel that very few Liberal politicians have ever watched the 1957 Jimmy Stewart movie, Night Passage. If they had, they’d know one of its thought-provoking songs, as sung by Stewart: You Can’t Get Far Without a Railroad.
As previously wrote in the Wawa News, old Hollywood got it right with that charming song. It’s time for Canadian policymakers of all-partisan stripes to learn and sing it. The current election campaign also provides the public with the opportunity to pick up that tune in support.
● Greg Gormick is a transportation analyst and policy adviser whose clients have included CP, CN, VIA and Metrolinx, and elected officials of four political parties.His forthcoming book is Railroaded: The Life, Near-Death and Future of Canada’s Passenger Trains.