The Plague-Ground – Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I wouldn’t want to be an airline these days. Even more, I wouldn’t want to be an airline passenger.

Those long waits to go through security will feel like recess compared to the technology that will save us from infecting each other before, during and after we fly. This is a certainty in the next few months and could be even a couple of years from now when we’ve all been vaccinated. Or will we be?

Besides, as we all know now, fear operates independent of reality. The odds that the man sitting beside me on the plane has a bomb may be the same as the odds that the same man has COVID-19. But the danger when he coughs in mid-flight somehow feels more clear and present.

So it’s perfectly possible that you will take longer to get to the airport, through the airport and through your flight than it does to drive to your destination. Not fly there. Drive there.

Let’s use Ottawa as an example. You can drive from Toronto in 4 hours and 30 minutes. So let’s say it takes 45 minutes to get to Pearson International, then another 2 hours and 45 minutes to get through The New Security, plus another hour in flight on the plane, and…….voila…….4 hours and 30 minutes.

It’s tipping points like this that make us give up cherished habits for new ones.

Especially today because the fastest possible VIA Rail train from Toronto to Ottawa is 3 hours and 45 minutes, while the average time is 4 hours and 20 minutes.

Now if we were in Europe and not North America, many of us would long ago have given up short-haul flying for the high-speed trains that can whoosh you from Madrid to Barcelona in 2 hours, 45 minutes; and of course London to Paris via the Eurostar in 2 hours and 28 minutes.

The stations aren’t in some farmer’s field, but Centre Ville, in Paris, the Gare du Nord, and in London,  St. Pancras.   Security is smoother, the seats are plush and the food,  fine.

So is the price, as I learned from reading a wondrous New Yorker article yesterday.  It’s called The Enduring Romance of the Night Train which puts our own trains in the dark. They are slow, spotty, starved of funding and always forgotten until some politician says: “We need a high-speed train from Windsor to Quebec City.”

But now, when we’re resolving to change so much in our lives, now might be the very time to start re-thinking our relationship with planes and trains. Until now, planes have won hands-down. But not so much anymore. Besides, they’re huge producers of CO2.

In Europe, it’s easy to compare planes to trains for short-haul trips because they’re apples and apples. Here, years of starving our passenger rail system have left it faint and halting at the very start of what could be a new age of short-haul train travel.

I remember years ago when Jean and I took a high-speed train from Rotterdam to Paris (a little over 2 and a half hours). For some reason, we were late in leaving. But when we arrived at the station in Paris, a dozen uniformed men and women rushed at us down the gateway, thrusting pieces of paper into the bewildered passengers’ hands. These were coupons offering a 50% discount on our next journey, with profuse apologies from the company who undertook to do this any time the train was 30 minutes late – and to offer a free trip any time your last one was delayed by an hour.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, the idea of a Windsor-Quebec City High-Speed Rail Corridor has been studied incessantly.

But with the Federal Government’s newly-created  Canada Infrastructure Bank (which is funding a study with Via Rail); with Ottawa’s penchant for opening the spigot on billions of new dollars; with interest rates approaching zero; and with a zeitgeist that says “we can’t go back to the old ways”, now seems like a pretty good time to open a different conversation: not the one that starts, “Flying will be even more mind-numbing than before,” but “Is there a better way than flying?”

After all, the railway did bring us together once already.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Get your tickets to the May 14th RamsayTalks Online with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time.”


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12 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

  1. I love trains, EVEN IN Canada. And I would love to do my journeys everywhere in North America by train. Some of my best adventures in Europe and Japan were on trains, though the latter were fast adventures because the trains move at breakneck speed. Bob, you are always a step ahead, and always eloquent. Thank you for making my modest prison term a little lighter.
    Gail S.

    1. Gail — Let’s hope all our prison terms will send us on parole soon — safely but soon !

  2. I have always been a big fan of trains too, particularly when you can sleep on them or there is a dining car. We go to Montreal and Ottawa by train. We have done Canada to the west coast, Canada to the east coast, and across Australia by train.
    Living in Cobourg, though, we are not very excited about VIA’s current proposal for a new line that will bypass Cobourg in favour of a northerly route from Ottawa to Toronto. A step backwards as far as we are concerned.

  3. Jenny Matrosovs

    As both a traveller who is totally rethinking her wish list for the future, and someone who works in the travel industry, I think there is a real opportunity here in Canada to encourage domestic travel, in a big way. It will be a long time before people want to get on a plane again – maybe never – or for that matter, leave the comfort of our home country and its healthcare system and its sane governments. So yes, absolutely invest in trains, encourage safe and comfortable rail travel, encourage car travel too the way we did post-war and going back to the dawn of the Michelin Guide in France (everyone does realize that today’s elite system of rating restaurants began as a way to sell more tires, right?). So that’s highways too, and those wonderful plaques that many of us stop to read along the way, the natural beauty of our country and its more-interesting-than-you-might-think history, its regional cuisine, the inspired arts and culture too often overshadowed by the bigger names abroad.

    I’m with you Bob.

  4. Linda Granfield

    Yes, yes to renewed efforts to spiff up passenger train travel.
    And while ‘they’ are at it, they could improve the highway pollution, congestion, and dangers by getting the commerce trailers back onto designated tracks. Highways are now two lanes of trucks, one lane of automobiles. So many and so close to one another that exit signage along the right side of the highway is impossible to locate and read in time to exit.
    (I’m seeing more of the impatient 18-wheeler drivers moving into the ‘cars-only’ left lane because even they can’t stand the slow traffic in truck lanes.)
    Happy Spring, Bob & Jean

  5. Hello Bob: Like Gail, I love trains. My first train trip was with my very best girlfriend in the 60’s. We were teenagers, and took the train from Toronto to Vancouver. We met two boys on the trip and well, no need to go into that here. Sadly my girlfriend, her name was Mary and her husband John, crashed their small plane and died on my birthday in September of 2002. In 2004, I once again boarded the train in Toronto, this time by myself, and traveled over those tracks to Vancouver. I did so in memory of my very best girlfriend – Mary.

    Our trains do not compare to those found in Europe, and so hopefully as you and your readers have stated Bob, here is an opportunity to get them back on ‘track’, so we can see this great country of ours in comfort.

    Thank you once again Bob for your insightful and wonderful writings.


    – Maggie

  6. I agree completely. Jack and I had done Ottawa, Montreal. My best was the Rocky Mountaineer. Luxury plus. Doing a great job, Bob.

    1. Thanks, Jane. I remember back in the 50s my dad and mom took me on a one-day locomotive trip to Camrose and back. It was the thrioll of a lifetime!

    2. Hi Maggie — Indeed, trains carry many tales and the very best ones are in Europe. But here’s to more train travel for all of us. Bob

    3. Linda — One of the benefits of this plague is that the plague of trucks on the 400 highways has all but disappeared. But these plagues will both end, happily and sadly. Cheers. Bob

    4. 1. Home country
      2. Healthcare system
      3. Sane government

      Yup, that about sums it all up, Jenny. How are you, by the way? And where in the world are you?
      Cheers and thanks for checking in. Bob

    5. Wow, Gail, I didn’t know about that VIA/Cobourg ‘uncoupling’……thanks for writing. Cheers. Bob

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