By Dan Rankin
Last Friday morning, a parade of nearly 40 people bearing protest signs and cardboard mockups of train cars set out from a concrete (or, rather, limestone) symbol of this town’s long tradition of rail travel: the historic St. Marys Junction Railway Station. They were bound for the current St. Marys railway station, where the stagnant state of local rail travel is headquartered.
As the members of All Aboard St. Marys and their supporters whistled and shouted their way from rail’s past towards it present, their minds were firmly focused on its future. Their message was clearly emblazoned on their freshly-minted signs: “better Canadian rail passenger service – Now!”
Numerous local business people and politicians were in attendance during the parade and the gathering outside the VIA station that followed, including Mayor Al Strathdee, Coun. Don Van Galen (who marched in the parade and later gave a speech in character as Father of Confederation John A. Macdonald), event organizer Chris West and Marlene Forman, who led the parade in the cardboard locomotive she specially spray-painted for the event.
“It was fabulous” said West, calling it a “bang-up day.” “The enthusiasm from the folks is just amazing. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
One of those taking part in the parade was Barry Brakk, a retired CN employee who came all the way from Montreal to show his support. “Someone’s got to do something and Chris has been great,” said Brakk, who had booked accommodations for two nights in St. Marys. He had to arrive the night before, he told the Independent, as, of course, there’s no early train to St. Marys.
St. Marys resident Missy Little also came out for the All Aboard Parade Friday morning. She said that she is a fan of the new accessibility lift at the St. Marys train station, having already used it three times. “I don’t have to go to Stratford anymore,” she said. “I always had to go there but now it’s really convenient, I just cross the road.”
But she, along with many others, would also like to see more trains.
Speaking on behalf of Perth-Wellington MP John Nater, who was unable to attend due to parliamentary commitments, was Matthew Rae, Nater’s communications and stakehold manager.
Reading a letter from the MP, Rae said that as Parliament resumes, Nater “will continue to stress the importance of transportation service and VIA Rail in our rural communities” to his colleagues in Ottawa.
All Aboard St. Marys campaign coordinator Greg Gormick also gave a speech outlining their future goals and further explaining the group’s decision to re-brand from its former name, “Save VIA.”
“We really don’t want to save VIA,” Gormick said. “Via has been a total loss for 39 years. We need to do something differently.”
Coming very soon down the tracks, Gormick said, is a new website (AllAboardStMarys.ca) and a new plan called “Fast, Fast, Fast Relief.”
“We’re going to be able to show the federal and provincial governments how, if they really wanted to… we could have five trains in each direction on the North Main line, and for our friends down in Niagara, and for improved service through Woodstock and Ingersoll and Brantford,” Gormick said, to cheers from the crowd.
“These things take time when you have new politicians that you have to educate,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of education. We’ve been supplying some of that education by borrowing the pages of newspapers across Southern Ontario in the last week. It still hasn’t brought us any new trains, but it certainly has brought a lot more attention to the situation.”
Gormick also noted that the situation in St. Marys is one mirrored in other communities across the country. On Vancouver Island, for instance, service on the E&N (Esquimalt & Nanaimo) Railway was suspended five years ago and, despite many government meetings and consultations, “there’s no sign of it coming back,” he said.
To raise awareness of that issue, Gormick recently wrote a letter to the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper sharing some of his knowledge about the Canadian rail business. “I specified that I would like to be billed as the campaign coordinator of All Aboard St. Marys and also a rail consultant,” said Gormick, who grew up in Toronto. “They went a little further than your wonderful mayor did when he made me an honorary citizen. The Victoria Times Colonist has decided I am ‘Greg Gormick, of St. Marys,’ and I’ve never been so proud to be part of any town.”