Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Christmas train returns

Some good new for a change! The ONR's Christmas train hits the rails again.

>>>Christmas train returns<<<

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Photo Update

Two recent photos to share today:

Firstly, the new Union Pearson Express trains are being tested between Mimico and Danforth GO stations in preparation for the launch next year. I was lucky enough to catch one of them near Bathurst Street on November 6.

Union Pearson Express

Secondly, and because it is Canada, snow has arrived in Ontario. CN 2202 and 2278 speed through a blizzard in Whitby on November 15.

A Taste of Things to Come... / Un avant-goût de ce qui nous attend...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Long-planned ONR work goes ahead

Plans have been afoot since 2011 to refurbish the aging stock for the Polar Bear Express. This, the third time the project has been announced, appears to finally be the real deal.

Long-planned ONR work goes ahead | North Bay Nugget

Monday, November 17, 2014

“The Challenge that We Face Together as a Province”: Bob Rae on the 'Ring of Fire'

The Hon. Bob Rae

On November 12, the Honourable Bob Rae, chief negotiator for First Nations groups in discussion with the Ontario government about the future of the 'Ring of Fire,' delivered the Annual Saul Goldstein Lecture at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto. His lecture, The Ring of Fire: Northern Ontario's New Economic Engine?, outlined the history of relations between Native people and the rest of Canada as well as the challenges we face as we look to develop the 'Ring of Fire,' a potentially enormous economic opportunity for the province and the country as a whole. Given my interest in the ONTC and the 'Ring of Fire,' I was in the audience.

Rae's overview of the issue, which he described as “the challenge that we face together as a province,” began with a history of Native subjugation through unfair treaties and the Indian Act, which saw Native people forced to assimilate (or die) in the face of government land grabs. He noted that “Canadians will have to come to grips with the most disastrous exercise in social engineering” when Justice Sinclair's report into the residential school system is released next year. “It can be called a genocide,” Rae continued, highlighting that the government's past aboriginal policy of “not letting a people be a people,” leaves a legacy that will be difficult to repair.

At the crux of the 'Ring of Fire' issue is the question of treaties, in particular the numbered treaties signed between Native groups and the province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Treaty 9, which covers the 'Ring of Fire,' was sent north by rail and canoe to be signed by Native groups who had no grasp of English and often signed only with an 'x'. While the government saw Treaty 9 as the way to a clear title on Native land, Native groups saw the treaty as an ongoing relationship. This was, in short, the “trillion dollar misunderstanding” which continues to have consequences today. Provinces (such as British Columbia and Quebec) which never signed numbered treaties have far better relations with Native groups. This phenomenon can be clearly seen by comparing life for the James Bay Cree in Ontario with that of their brethren in Quebec.

Turning to the 'Ring of Fire,' Rae pointed out that, as a result of the treaties, there are “two different understandings [that] people have about this land,” a problem further compounded by the fact that Native groups do not consider the land to have ever belonged to them; they were simply custodians for the Creator. Ownership aside, the land that the government and mining companies want to develop is inhabited by a “99%” native population who want to “control their destiny.” The time has come for Native groups to choose their own future, rather than the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines deciding it for them. Historically, Natives were never consulted as Ontario developed northwards. Sudbury was Native land. Timmins was Native land. In fact, it was all once Native land. For the 'Ring of Fire,' the development must be “fully accepted” by Natives groups living there.

The massive chromite deposits in the 'Ring of Fire' do present a “very exciting” opportunity, provided that the project is properly managed. As Rae explained, the framework agreement between the government and native groups is now finished and affirms that all rights will be respected (even if said rights have not yet been spelled out). At the centre of the discussion will be four main issues: infrastructure, living conditions, the environmental assessment process and revenue sharing. Rather than simply declare the “last pristine territory of the province” off-limits to development, Rae said that we must consult with Native people living there and see what future they envision. “We have left [Native people] to languish for generations” in conditions resembling “any third world country.” Attawapiskat, and other James Bay communities, are in desperate need of infrastructure and stable employment so that residents can control their own lives. This must be an important part of any mining development.

Put simply, by ignoring Native issues, “we have not fully embraced who we are as a people.” Canada's Native population is the fastest-growing demographic in the country, but is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and at the low end of the income scale. Like it or not, Canada's economic future lies largely in natural resources, but the legacy of injustice towards Native people must be addressed – the land isn't free for the taking.

To conclude, Bob Rae reminded the audience that “we've come a long way,” but that “we have one more step to take.” It is time to talk with Native people, to find out what they want to happen, and then to proceed accordingly.

During the question and answer session at the end, I raised the issue of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, which I argued could help provide the infrastructure needed in the north, even if the province seems to be ignoring it. Rae's response was that we need a “real sense of imagination” for the development of the 'Ring of Fire.' The key issue for transportation is to avoid the “total isolation” of the north and also to include the entire province in the development of transportation networks. As for the ONTC, Rae's feeling was that rail will be crucial for freight in the north, but not for passengers.

Another question asked whether Natives actually wanted to be connected to the rest of the province. On this, Rae explained that the debate is ongoing, and that there is no consensus. However, he did connect mental health issues in the remote communities to a sense of isolation among young people who, thanks to modern communication, can see what they are missing out on.

Lastly, Rae commented on the perennial question in Canadian policy: jurisdiction. By rights, Native issues are constitutionally federal, but Stephen Harper's regime has followed a very narrow interpretation which effectively absolves the federal government of any responsibility for future development by downloading much of the funding and decisions to provincial governments. In Rae's eyes, Harper's policies continue to make reserve life unbearable in a bid to force Natives to move into urban areas and, by extension, to become invisible, thus finishing the government's century-long goal of erasing Canada's indigenous people. If consensus and cooperation are the way forward, then the 'Ring of Fire' is a long way off.

I thought that Bob Rae's lecture offered a very good overview of Native-government relations, but was weak on the 'Ring of Fire' development itself. The reality is that mining companies are slowing their exploration as they perceive the provincial government to be undecided and an unreliable partner. By focusing on Native issues, I believe that Rae helped divert attention away from the untold wealth waiting to be mined and brought the issue back to the people it will affect. This is a laudable stance and it also let him speak to his current role and expertise as a negotiator for Native communities. I felt his assessment of the role of the ONTC was fair, even if I would like to see passenger rail play a larger role in Ontario's transportation policy.

All things considered, I am still undecided about the role of the ONTC (past, present and future) in the development of northern Ontario. It is a lifeline to many remote communities, who now depend on its services to stay connected. However, it was the ONTC (and its predecessors) which created this dependency in the first place. After all, government control over the north was nearly impossible until the coming of the railway.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Stranded as ONTC changes routes

Starting next month, the ONTC's buses will no longer serve Mactier. Is this the first true cut in service since the divestment/transformation saga began in March 2012? Yes, the Northlander was cancelled, but its stops are still served by buses. However, it appears that Mactier is losing all connections.

>>>Stranded as ONTC changes routes | North Bay Nugget<<<

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Bob Rae 'Ring of Fire' Lecture in Toronto on November 12

Bob Rae, former Ontario Premier and current negotiator for First Nations involved in the 'Ring of Fire,' will deliver the annual Saul Goldstein Memorial Lecture at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto, on November 12. The topic will be "The Ring of Fire: Northern Ontario's New Economic Engine?" For details, click here.

Kelly worried ministry will bleed the ONTC dry

This past week, representatives of the ONTC unions were granted a 1-hour meeting with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in Toronto. Since the announcement of 'transformation' earlier this year, there have been concerns as to the stagnant nature of this change - that is to say, nothing is happening.

The meeting, described as "frank," did not offer any real answers. It appears that the potential for refurbishment work from Metrolinx is still a possibility, but not until the ONTC is more "competitive." This is reminiscent of the "enhanced" bus service that was promised, then cancelled, when the government decided that there wasn't any demand.

While the ONTC remains in government hands, its future is more uncertain than ever. After all, what can it do without any work?

>>>Kelly worried ministry will bleed the ONTC dry | North Bay Nugget<<<

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Helping "The Guy with a Train in His Basement"

Sometimes (like when you are concentrating your time on releasing a book) certain projects get put on the back-burner, not because they aren’t good, but because you haven’t the time to do them justice. This is one of those projects.

Last December, I learned that Jason Shron, head of the extremely successful Canadian model railway manufacturer Rapido Trains, was going to be visiting the UK, including a special event in Crewe. Unable to head to Crewe, I dropped him an email saying that it was a shame he wasn't visiting York. He quickly replied that he was. Indeed, he did visit York along with his colleague Dan Garcia, and I was their guide for the day.

Jason and Dan discover the replica of Stephenson’s Rocket.

The most memorable event from the visit was Jason and Dan browsing through York's premier model railway shop. Anyone familiar with Rapido's beautifully-detailed models will appreciate that Jason is very exacting when it comes to all model trains. I felt a little sorry for the shop as most UK models he saw simply weren't up to scratch and failed his critical appraisal.

One of the main reasons for the trip (apart from the Doctor Who anniversary celebrations) was to begin the process of developing Rapido's first foray into the British model market. They had told me what it was, but I was sworn to secrecy. Months later, the APT-E project was announced to great acclaim. After their brief York visit, Jason and Dan headed back to Canada while I settled back into my normal York routine.

Fast forward a month and an email from Jason appears in my inbox. While I had filed their secret project into the back of my mind, Jason had been hard at work with the Rapido team and organizations in the UK working on the project. In his email, he asked if I might be able to help by browsing through some files in the National Railway Museum's (NRM) archives, a mere 10-minute walk from my flat. As an historian, I love research. As a railway enthusiast, I love trains. How could I say no?

Overview of the APT-E, courtesy NRM.

And so it was arranged. I spent two days pouring over the plans for the train in question - about 50 boxes of film from the 1970s. I was looking for the drawings which would help Rapido design their model, exterior plans, underframe details and anything else that would be visible on a OO gauge model. Two things struck me about them. Firstly, how fine an art drafting is. Most of the drawings were hand-drawn by actual people, unlike today's CAD-generated printouts. Secondly, I was surprised by how quickly electronic technology had become part of train design; the vast majority of the drawings were circuit diagrams. Whereas a steam engine didn't need any wiring, by the 1970s trains were increasingly powered by silicon chips and copper wire. During my hunting, it struck me that some of the more "photogenic" plans had disappeared, likely as souvenirs when the APT-E project was shelved. Nevertheless, there was enough of a complete picture to allow the initial designs to begin.

Negatives of the APT-E test runs, courtesy NRM.

With the plans sorted, Jason asked me to examine the NRM's collection of APT-E photographs. Again, it took two days to sort through the prints, negatives, transparencies and promotional material of the construction and testing of the high-speed train which was decades ahead of its time. Looking back, there weren't many images of the train in action, probably because it never entered revenue service. As such, the British Rail promotional department never went to town in the way that it did for the APT-P, which did briefly enter revenue service. I was, however, able to find enough good images for Rapido's promotional needs. Two days spent looking at photos of trains in the world's premier railway museum, what could be better?

* * *

And so, I have actually been part of making a model! My research has helped to shape it. While I am a long-time buyer of model railway products, I have never thought much about how models actually comes to be on the hobby shop shelf. One of the best things about Rapido is that their newsletters offer a very candid glimpse at the design and production of their models and the rationale behind their pre-order distribution model. How many companies can you name that actually publish photos of their factory and working conditions in China? Whenever modellers whine about how manufacturers didn't make the right model, or wonder why it is taking so long for the next highly-anticipated release, they should appreciate how much time and resources are needed to get that train into stores.

Skip ahead to the end of June. After months of speculation and building hype, Rapido (this time represented by Jason and his other colleague Bill Schneider) unveiled their APT-E model at the NRM's Shildon site to a very receptive crowd of modellers and the railway press. I have to admit, I thought Rapido trying to enter what is arguably the most saturated model railway market in the world was risky, but the reception has been very positive. Of course, I was there, lending a hand as photographer and general dog's body for the day.

Along with manning the display booth, I helped to film what is probably the most unusual model railway promo video in history. "Carry On APT-E" has remarkably little to do with the APT-E, but is excellent visibility for the Rapido brand. I helped film the great train chase, which mostly meant standing around for several hours and trying to reassure the drivers that Jason isn't actually as crazy as he seems. In fact, Jason and Bill spent three days filming the video (and sorting out admin for the project). They even managed to fit in a trip to York to visit the NRM. Of course, I served as their guide once again.

Jason isn’t crazy. Honest.

So ends my experience of helping to build a model train. I gained archival experience and got to see how Rapido works (at least a little). Thanks to Jason and Rapido for the opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Three big 'whoppers' told about the Ring of Fire

So, how big a deal is the "Ring of Fire" for northern development (and, potentially, the future of the ONTC)? Perhaps not as big as we first thought. That is not to say that there is no potential (because there is) but it is worth pointing out that many of the 'whoppers' are directly the result of a sluggish government.

>>>Three big 'whoppers' told about the Ring of Fire - CBC News<<<

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

ONR president steps down

This came as a surprise to everyone. Paul Goulet has decided to call it a day at the ONTC. From what I can gather, he was well-liked by staff. However, his departure does offer the chance to change the Commission with some new leadership.

>>>ONR president steps down | North Bay Nugget<<<