Chet Greason, Gazette staff
Last night, the social action group, Empowering People in Communities (EPIC), held a movie screening at the Local Community Food Centre.
The film was the documentary "De-Railed: The National Dream" by filmmaker Dan Nystedt, which explores Canada's rail infrastructure.
Traveling from province to province, Nystedt speaks to experts, policy-makers, and those who use today's trains to try to figure out exactly what the national transportation strategy is (short answer: there isn't one.)
Nystedt explores why roads are subsidized in Ontario but rail is not, the politics of the automobile, and communities purchasing their local short-line railroads in an effort to save them from being torn up. These include a wheat farmers' co-op in Saskatchewan that uses its trains to haul grain in large and affordable quantities, and a coalition between residents of Vancouver Island and First Nations that saved the passenger line that traverses the island north to south.
The Food Centre was packed with an estimated 80 people, all with their own concerns regarding the future of rail in Canada.
Following the film, a panel of speakers made brief presentations before opening the floor up for questions.
Chris West, organizer of the Save VIA petition aimed at reinstating lost rail service on the London-Toronto line that includes Stratford, was the first to speak.
"Half of the population in Ontario is rural," he observed. "We have to link those communities."
West noted that, with more people riding trains, there would be less people on the road, relieving highway congestion and helping the environment. He suggested $1.2 billion should be invested to bring Ontario's train system up to standard, saying doing so would be a wise investment and would likely inject a further $3 billion into the GDP. In order to finance the boost, he suggested a $0.01 gas tax hike, or taking it out of the billions of dollars that are spent on foreign affairs, contributions, or money otherwise being sent outside of the county.
He encouraged anyone concerned to contact their MPs, MPPs, and municipal politicians, citing Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, where the tiny Whos have to "bang on those drums until someone hears" to prove they exist.
Sheila Clarke, of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW), was part of an integrated transportation system plan that was developed by her organization in 1992. It called on governments to invest in public transportation.
"We advocated in Stratford for more trains," she said, noting those trains that they fought for have since been taken away.
She said students and those with medical needs especially feel the pinch brought on by a lack of accessible public transportation options, adding those living in remote areas who require specialized treatments, and can't get there, are basically being told, "'Sorry. You have to die.'"
And some people, she added, simply don't want to drive a car.
"Who here actually likes driving on the 401?" she asked.
Clarke likewise advised those in attendance to contact their local politicians, saying handwritten letters tend to carry a lot of weight. She also directed people to www.gettingthere.ca, a CFUW website dedicated to transport orientated development.
The last speaker of the evening was Jasmine Tabibi of the Huron-Perth Transportation Task Force, an info-gathering group set up through the United Way Perth-Huron.
The task force, established after a 2012 Social Research and Planning Council report cited a lack of public transit as a major issue facing Perth and Huron counties, connects with other rural Ontario areas to learn how they've coped with similar problems.
Tabibi suggested a car or ride sharing program, where an annual fee provides its members access to a community vehicle for short-term usage, as one possible means to alleviate mobility issues.
She also directed the audience to a transportation survey currently being conducted by the United Way. Those interested in participating in the survey can find the link at www.perthhuron.unitedway.ca.