Canadian Consulting Engineer

News – 01-MAR-99

In North America, railways have long since ceded dominance to the highway and the automobile, and as fast as train tracks have been abandoned to the weeds and the woodchucks, more multi-lane highways ...

March 1, 1999   By Bronwen Ledger

In North America, railways have long since ceded dominance to the highway and the automobile, and as fast as train tracks have been abandoned to the weeds and the woodchucks, more multi-lane highways have carved their asphalt paths through the countryside. Canadian Pacific Railways’ recent donation of 1,600 kilometres of unused rail corridor to be used as recreational trails is just one more potent sign that rail’s glory days are gone for good.

As we have watched the railways shrink over the past 30 years or so, many of us felt a sense of melancholy and loss. In Canada railways are revered for opening up the frontiers, but for me they also hold more personal associations. I was brought up in industrial northern England in the 1950s, and every trip to my grandparents meant a train journey. Whether I was standing in busy New Street Station in Birmingham, almost blasted off my feet as the great black steam engines rolled up to the platform, or riding through grimy factory yards and mills, those trips were always a thrill. There, for the first time I felt the mighty power of engineering close up, and found a strange Dickensian fascination with the oil-caked and massive machinery of the late industrial age.

But while railways have certainly been in decline, all is far from lost. Indeed important new developments are boosting their fortunes. New technology is making engines cleaner and much faster — capable of speeds up to 300 kilometres an hour. And as Jeff Plant, P.Eng. points out in the feature on page 40, in freight transport the railways are proving to be remarkably resilient competition to the road haulage firms. Indeed, deregulated, stripped to bare-bones efficiency, and with increasing cross-border links with the U.S., railway companies are making substantial profits. As a result, the industry still holds opportunities for consulting engineers. Some of those opportunities come from surprising quarters. Communications companies, for example, are taking advantage of the railways’ continuous cross-country infrastructure, and consulting engineers are helping them to install fibre-optic cable conduit along railway corridors.

The environmental benefits of railways could even make them the wave of the future. One train engine saves the emissions of all the trucks and of all the cars needed to transport the containers or passengers individually. Europe, Japan and the U.S. are investing heavily in the industry for this very reason. The U.S., for example, recently pledged $2 billion in a financial package to help Amtrak.

It is not surprising that Canadian governments are slow to make the same commitment, for our sprawling populations will rarely sustain passenger trains. But as Plant argues, we can expect Transport Canada to provide more leadership by having integrated transport policies that support the intermodal solution. That way we can take advantage of at least some of the environmental benefits of rail. Provincial and municipal governments should also be taking the lead in another important area: helping to make our scandalously underused urban tracks available for commuter rail transit.

Bronwen Ledger


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