Not a Sentimental Journey: What's Behind the VIA RAIL Cuts, What You Can do About It

Edited by Jo Davis, Waterloo, Ont., Gunbyfield Publishing; 240 pp., $9.95.

Reviewed by David McRobert

This book is the first publication of the Turnaround Decade Group, an organization conceived at a provocative conference sponsored by the Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform (COMER) in Waterloo, Ontario in mid-August 1989 and titled "Financing the TurnaroundDecade."  COMER is  a non-governmental organization made up of "alternative economists" like Hazel Henderson and Herman Daly, environmentalists and other activists, and, not surprisingly, the conference provided a timely forum for discussion of numerous environmental, economic and social issues, including the anticipated VIA Rail cuts.

The controversy and concern that was articulated about the need for alternative modes of transportation and the environmental implications of excessive automobile use at the conference inspired Jo Davis, one of the key conference organizers, to compile this "scrapbook" on the forces behind the massive VIARail cuts which were formally announced by the Mulroney government in October 1989.

Risking more than $25,000 of her own money to finance the book, Davis began research in the Fall of 1989, crisscrossing Canada by train, helping to organize protests in cities and towns, and meeting with concerned citizens all over the country. 

The book records her travels and activism and, as such, it is reminiscent of the kind of scrapbook that citizens groups sometimes compile as testimony to their political struggles with government or industry.  Davis extracts various newspaper articles, quotes from The Last Straw, a report based on a "Task Force" established by the federal Progressive Conservatives to make political hay while they were the official opposition.  The report was extremely critical of the Trudeau Liberals because they implemented huge cuts to VIA operations in 1981, debates from the House of Commons, entertaining and incisive political cartoons, edited transcripts of illuminating conversations between Davis and federal bureaucrats, and angry quotes from former VIA employees. 

Some of the papers presented at the mid-August COMER conference are included, as are a few original articles and statements by economists, lawyers and activists.  Finally, Davis sprinkles in her own ideas and ironic editorial comments on the materials. All of this material is fused together in a unique and imaginative format. 

Divided into eight chapters, a short epilogue, and an eclectic bibliography, the book is a valuable resource and should provide ammunition to those people who want to fight for the legislative and policy changes needed to establish a decent railway system in this country and stop further VIA cuts planned in the next few years.

One of the central premises of the book is that the VIA cuts show the Mulroney government has failed to understand the nature of the environmental crisis, and as some critics suggest, seem to be hoping that environmental  will go away.  There is plenty of evidence in the book to back up this premise.  For example, many of the hidden costs associated with certain forms of transportation are ignored.  One example of a hidden cost of excessive car and truck operation is global warming, due largely to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.  According to current estimates Canadians are among the worst contributors to this problem and our excessive reliance on cars and trucks is one of the key reasons why this is the case.

Another hidden cost associated with excessive fossil combustion by cars is photochemical smog due to ground-level ozone pollution in Canadian cities.  Ground-level ozone is a by-product of the interaction of nitrogen oxides (NOX), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and sunlight.  High levels of ozone can cause significant lung disfunction in adults and poses health risks to elderly people and children and causes crop damage.   Federal government guidelines establish ozone levels below 82 parts per billion as safe but most cities in the Windsor-Quebec corridor exceed this level on hot summer days, partly because cars are one of the largest sources of both NOX and VOCs.

The most penetrating chapter deals with the economic impacts of the VIA cuts.  According to the federal government, more than a billion dollars will be saved through gradual cuts to VIA services.  However, the contributors to the book show that when costs like unemployment enefits to laid-off workers, loss of tourist dollars, added congestion at airports and increased road repairs (due to the increased use of roads and airports) are taken into account, the savings are under $700 million.

Another important argument made by many of contributors, and one that is not well understood by many Canadians, is that our governments subsidize all forms of transportation.  A detailed paper on the social and environmental costs of automobile by Luc Gagnon, the Quebec Association for the Conservation of Nature, is reproduced in the fourth chapter, and it shows that, when the costs of automobile operation, maintenance and road construction are calculated, Canadian governments subsidize average car drivers to the tune of about five thousand dollars a year.

Another strength of the book is that Davis allows actual train passengers and commuters to voice their outrage about the VIA cuts in most of the chapters, drawing on interviews that she and other researchers undertook in the Fall of 1989.  Some of the quotes that Davis has inserted are compelling and expose neglected dimensions of the controversy.  For example, Marion Graham of South Mountain, Ontario highlights an important implication of the cuts when she said: "These cuts are typical of this [federal] government.  It's another case of the government shafting rural people."  Graham's insights are followed by other fascinating quotes and comments, and, in the aggregate, these statements are a powerful indictment of the Mulroney government's decision to bludgeon VIA rail.

One criticism that I would make relates to the structure of the book.  Davis has extensive experience as a writer, producer and documentary filmmaker for TV-Ontario and this experience appears to have influenced her approach to editing this book.  In the middle of an article she jumps to new materials like a filmmaker might cut to a scene in a multi-plot story and she doesn't always indicate where the story or article continues.  While some readers may enjoy this patchwork editing style, I found it distracting at certain points.  Another small complaint I have is that Davis has not provided dates for all of the extracted newspaper articles, and this sloppiness reduces the value of the book as a reference document.

I highly recommend this book, now in its second printing (the initial run of 5,000 copies sold out in early 1990).  It should provide citizens and activists concerned about the VIA cuts with deeper insight into the priorities of the Mulroney government and illuminate this disturbing chapter in Canadian public policy.

David McRobert is a programme coordinator at Pollution Probe and an LLM Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.