An interview with the author of Railway Maps of the World:
At its peak, there were 92,449 kilometres of rail lines criss-crossing Canada from coast to coast. That was in 1976. Today, almost half the lines have been destroyed, dug-up, or abandoned — only 49,422 km remain in operation. Worldwide, the numbers are just as grim: from a high of 2,500,000 km in 1920, the Golden Age of rail travel, to 1,370,782 km now. Yet, there are still those who prefer the charm of the train to its air or auto brethren. Mark Ovenden is one such man. Ovenden, who enjoyed unexpected success with his 2007 book Transit Maps of the World, has recently released Railway Maps of the World. It is a celebration of beautiful maps, he says, but also a reminder of what we’ve lost. He spoke to the Post’s Mark Medley from his home in Paris.
Although the absolute reduction in rail lines in Canada is quite true, the railway companies could not earn a profit today if they’d kept all of those lines in operation. Some of the lines were abandoned as sources of traffic declined, either through depletion of the resource or improvements to road transportation. Some of the lines were abandoned once passenger traffic dropped below operating costs. Technological improvements in both locomotives and in control and signalling equipment allowed better use of the tracks, allowing redundant lines to be taken out of service.
Railways have to pay taxes on their right-of-way, so once a length of track becomes uneconomic, it will very quickly be taken out of service so that the railway doesn’t pay for maintenance of unused routes and can sell the land. For all the “romance of the rails”, railways are businesses which have to earn profits to continue operating.
Q: What does it say, then, that we were able to turn our back on railways so easily?
A: It’s a very complex and a very sad picture on many levels, from which luckily only in the last five, 10, 15 years we’re beginning to turn the corner. When you look at the influence and the power of the oil companies, and the whole automotive industry, they really were responsible — they saw it as a very deliberate policy to run down the railway services, and buy up things like streetcars and run them down again. The oil companies have blood on their hands, really. They were the ones who forced the railways to shut. They were the ones that had the tracks torn up. Under their influence people were forced to buy cars.
This is a lively combination of wishful thinking and conspiracy theorizing. It also nicely conflates the real business of the railways in North America — massive amounts of freight traffic — with a much smaller and unprofitable side-line — passenger service. Few railways ever earned much of their revenues from passenger traffic, which is why most modern subways, streetcars, and light rail systems are in the public sector. The railways can be built to maximize freight traffic (and therefore profit) or they can be built to maximize passenger traffic. Only organizations that do not have to earn a profit can justify concentrating on passenger service.
In the 1920s, automobiles changed from being super-expensive, finicky toys for the rich to being affordable to middle class and even some working class famlies and far more reliable (so you didn’t need to have a dedicated driver/mechanic for each vehicle). Unlike trains, where you could only go where the rails went and only when the train was going in that direction, a car allowed you to go anywhere there was a road, whenever you wanted.
It is difficult for us to grasp just how liberating this was for millions of Americans and Canadians — we’re so used to being able to go where we want at any time that we rarely even think about what it was like before the heyday of the car. Passenger trains had that kind of transformative effect in Europe, but less so in North America, where moving freight was always the primary purpose for building railways (setting aside the Union Pacific and the Canadian Pacific, as the construction of both were more influenced by government policy than profit-seeking).