Travel jazz: Take the train, eh?

Monday, December 2, 2002 - Print Edition, Page A19, Toronto Globe and Mail

The one-day business trip to Montreal from Toronto starts with a call to the limousine service to arrange a car to the airport in the morning. "What time is your flight, sir?" says the wonderful woman on the telephone, who knows you well from too many such conversations. "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane at 8 a.m.," we joke, referring to the alleged time of departure. "We'll be at your house at 6:15," she says with lugubrious finality.

We have been through this before. To be ready by 6:15, we set the alarm for 5:15, knowing that 10 minutes will be lost in denial, 15 minutes by grabbing instant coffee, 10 minutes by standing bovine in the shower, 10 by shaving and applying deodorant twice, eight minutes throwing on a regulation suit, four minutes to arrange a briefcase, and three minutes to find the front door in the early morning gloom.

The trip to Pearson airport is a video game of darts and dashes, evasions and shortcuts, to avoid the inevitable "troubles" on the freeway that make things "busy," in the euphemism of the radio reporter. Today, another tractor-trailer has tipped over on a strategic ramp, dumping gravel across the road.

Getting to the airport can take 30 minutes, or 75 minutes, on the roulette of Toronto's freeways. The only thing worse than getting there just in time is getting there far too early: You could have slept another half hour.

Once at the airport, you line up, shut up, put up and give up, hoping that the thing leaves on time. Arriving in Montreal, you get into one of those odd, 1986 Peugeots they call taxis, crunch into the back seat and crawl through the morning rush hour toward your goal. At 10 a.m., you schlep into the meeting five hours tired, manhandled, searched and ogled. By 4 p.m., you know it will all begin again in reverse -- another high-flying business day of travel from hell.

David Collenette knows all about the pleasures of trains. You stroll through a busy city-centre station onto the solid, comfortable train, settling into a capacious seat, opening the paper and requesting a caffe latte as the north shore of Lake Ontario rolls by.
Five hours later, after a bit of paperwork, an hour daydreaming and a tiny nap, you stride off the train into the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and walk over to your meeting, composed.
By 4 p.m., you are yukking it up at an elegant bar in Place Ville Marie before boarding the evening special to Toronto, with a decent meal and a good book. By 9, you are strolling onto Front Street to grab a cab for the short hop to home.

Trains beat planes for travel in every way except speed over long distances. Between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, trains are very close to matching planes in speed -- and the difference could be resolved by relatively minor upgrades in tracks and equipment on the rails. And then we could get our dignity back as travellers, rescued by these wonderfully humane conveyances called trains.

The simple arithmetic of train travel suggests that passenger trains should be eliminated because they require "subsidies" to stay on the tracks. But simple arithmetic is too simple by half. The expensive externalities of road and air traffic are nowhere near reflected in the price of using roads and airports. True-cost accounting of passenger train travel in and among highly urbanized areas would give trains a far better reputation than they currently enjoy.
Paul Bedford, Toronto's chief city planner, observes with impeccable logic that Toronto will not see more major freeways in its future. There is neither space nor political will to build them. Beyond expensive subways, then, commuter trains to satellite towns offer the only sensible answer to explosive congestion -- trains that operate with high capacity at extended hours. The cheapest -- perhaps only -- way to effectively add freeway capacity in the Toronto megalopolis is to expand the network and intensity of commuter trains.

Mr. Collenette is the federal minister for Toronto and speaks passionately about the power of trains to bring sense to our community life. Doing so, he runs up against the simple arithmeticians who can't see the externalities for the "subsidies" or the subsidies for the roads and air systems.

At some point, we have to get beyond the line-by-line computations and text-book lessons and look at the world as it is, clogged in a canyon of roads and airports. Salvation is the virile train. Having learned to count, we need to learn to take account -- and count again.

William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.

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