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Rail line came out of nowhere

Mar 07, 2008 04:30 AM Jim Coyle

Is there a child who didn’t wave (back when we had them, anyway) at cabooses clickety-clacking into the distance, a little boy anywhere who didn’t want to one day drive the train?

You don’t need to be Gordon Lightfoot to know that the railway - the “drivin’ em in and tyin’ em down” of its building, its moody whistle feeding dreams and wanderlust when rolling by - has a special place in the soul and psyche of this country.

Somewhere in the fantasies of most politicians must reside a wish to join the mutton-chopped worthies of the national dream, drive one last spike, and stretch the steel ribbons that tamed the West and knit the nation.

Still, while no one is saying - as was alleged of Sir John A’s plan to build a railway to the Pacific - that it’s “an act of insane recklessness,” a lot of folks have found federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s promise of a Toronto-Peterborough rail line at least a little fanciful.

Emerging as it did from a defiantly minimalist budget, where most demands were ignored, new projects few, the train seemed to appear out of nowhere, almost as an indulgence, a toy, a plaything for the minister’s local amusement.

The Ontario transportation minister was surprised. It was news also to the chair of Metrolinx, overseeing Greater Toronto’s transit future. Mayor David Miller was equally perplexed and miffed that Toronto’s presence in Flaherty’s consciousness seemed limited to this.

The provincial finance minister - such a rail line nowhere on his priority list for transit improvements - was also bemused. “I was as caught off guard as others were,” said Dwight Duncan.

Not, of course, that anyone’s inclined to look a gift iron horse in the mouth. It’s just that there were fair questions to ask about the lack of consultation on something as important as regional transportation and whether the arbitrariness of it is really any way to run a railway.

Even Flaherty’s department was left scrambling to provide details.

Something over $100 million was the eventual estimate, no frills, two trains daily to Union Station, eight stops en route, up and running by 2010.

The Toronto-Peterborough train proposal did appear to touch the inner Casey Jones of provincial PC Leader John Tory. At a recent party convention, Tory assured members that policy would from that day forward be driven by the grassroots, not plucked out of the blue.

But surprise or not, Tory scrambled aboard the notion of a Peterborough train, saying it will “do wonders” for the regional economy (not to mention the prospects of some of his caucus members).

Running as it would through Flaherty’s federal riding and the provincial tract of his wife, Christine Elliott, the service will doubtless soon have more nicknames than it will the inevitable spray-painted graffiti.

The Flaherty and Elliott Railway sounds good, joining the romantic pantheon of the Timiskaming and Northern Ontario, the Goderich and Exeter, the Toronto Grey and Bruce.

Even so, the method of its announcement might not have sat well with our nation-building forebears. Sir Sandford Fleming, who oversaw construction of the great railway, would likely not have been amused at Flaherty’s whimsicality.

The meticulous Scot had “worked out every detail down to the last horse, cross-tie and telegraph pole,” said Pierre Berton in The National Dream. “And, of course, to the last dollar.”

Ah, there was a time in this fair land …




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