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It was a crisp fall day when Elizabeth Whitten, The Independent’s St. John’s-based investigative reporter, pulled up at the spot where she’d agreed to meet with @NeedTrains, the N.L.-famous Twitter account that’s sort of like Batman but for posting about railroads.
Our history with trains can be seen if you look around—from the neo-Gothic building that houses the Railway Coastal Museum in downtown St. John’s (along with Memorial University’s Genesis co-working space) to the rail lines that have been converted into the T’Railways. (Not to mention the ubiquitous “I ❤ NL Trains” stickers scattered around the city.)
@NeedTrains is dedicated to reminding us that these smoke-belching metal beasts used to bring goods and people across the island, until they were torn up and sold off. The Independent has agreed to keep his identity secret, fearing reprisals from the auto and highway industry. (Labrador, of course, already @HasTrains.)
The Newfoundland Railway is dead. Long live the Newfoundland Railway!
Elizabeth Whitten (The Independent): Your Twitter persona is about how Newfoundland needs trains. So make the case: why does Newfoundland need trains?
NeedTrains: I think the real question is: why not? Going back to Confederation trains were something covered, the same way that Marine Atlantic is covered by the federal government. We struck a deal to scale down that kind of infrastructure…
I know when we joined Confederation trains were assumed by the Canadian National Railways under the Terms of Union between Newfoundland and Canada.
Yeah. Under the Terms of Union it was run by CN; they also operate the road cruiser service that was later taken over by DRL out of Triton. There was a program, I think it was when Peckford was premier—it was sold off, and the deal was we’d get a divided highway essentially across the island. And that’s why we get these double lane overpasses out in Central that only have one double-lane of highway going through it instead of two. The point being that the deal really wasn’t that good for us. We’ve got it out to Whtibourne, which is a bit underwhelming. And we gave up a pretty critical piece of infrastructure.
Most parts of the country, with the exception of PEI—they all have trains, to some distinction. Whether it’s passenger service or freight, which is very useful. As we see the effects of climate change, the highway washes out on a regular basis, you have to wonder, maybe it would actually be a good idea to have a second way through here.
It can also go back to our love of car culture here. I’m not even sure when that became entrenched—maybe as the highways consumed the need for the trains. How did we become a car culture?
The expansion of highways after Confederation, I mean it’s part of the resettlement narrative. They had to build highways to deliver services, they couldn’t reach all the towns. The railway was even worse at doing that. Part of that is by design: they chose a narrow gauge because it was cheaper. There are some other benefits; they’re more maneuverable… But even when they were making those original choices about the design of the railway there was some pushback, some recognition, that it actually would be worthwhile to match the gauge on the continent so you could tie the island in a bit better with the Canadian economy. It didn’t fly. Cost-cutting is a lot of it though; that’s the reason they went over Gaff Topsail, which was a great disaster of that railroad. It was shut down in snowstorms for weeks at a time when they could have gone around it, but it was just cheaper.
Why do we need trains now though? If we decided, we’re going to reinvest in this?
The building of trains is a tattered history in Newfoundland and across Canada. It’s usually expensive. I think any time I get any pushback from people who aren’t engaging entirely in bad faith, they just assume it’s another Muskrat Falls-type thing where we would just have to pay for it ourselves. That’s not the case, it’s national infrastructure. Realistically, getting it back is going to be next to impossible. It would probably be cheaper than the Muskrat Falls project to actually rebuild the main line across the island but it’s a big ask. You‘d have to have a pretty sympathetic federal government come to power to realize that.
That’s unlikely. So your Twitter account launched in 2019 and you’ve become “Newfoundland Twitter” famous. What is it that people enjoy so much about your message?
It’s this folksy bit of our past and we love talking about that sort of thing. [Though] as one of my elder relations once said, ‘I don’t know what people are reminiscing about. It was just terrible and poor.’ But I mean, trains are nice! Anytime anyone travels off the island and gets to ride the train ‘Wow, this is so civilized and makes so much sense.’
Yeah, I can get from one place to another and not have to be behind the wheel. I can read the entire time!
It’s the marriage between two things: on one hand it’s nostalgia, and the other is just, why don’t we do things that make sense? Why do I, as a resident of the metro area, have to have a car to get anywhere?
It’s an easy thing to rally around and highlight the absurdities of how inaccessible the province is. Let alone trains, there’s not even any buses and the buses that we do have— there’s not really a reliable bus service that runs up the Burin and Northern peninsula…
Trains are like a gateway, you open it up and start looking and it’s a broader discussion about accessibility and travel.
Buses are the trains of roads.
Buses make a lot of sense. They’re extremely efficient and we’re kind of terrible at them.
How many of your Twitter followers just like the absurdity of bringing trains back, and how many could be true believers?
Especially in Newfoundland where our politics are—some of the issues are so big but the level is so low. The House of Assembly is like tee-ball politics, it’s like small town crap. But they come back with $15+ billion dollar deals so why not ask for trains?
In the ‘80s we got the Sprung greenhouse and that was a debacle. We’re known for putting our money into questionably dubious ploys.
It’s just nonsense, right. So why not? I think also it’s just Twitter is its own strange little universe and people just like having bits.
So why did this become your bit. Why did you start a train account? Are you really besotted by trains?
Well this is the real question. It’s one of the most common questions I get asked. I was at a friend’s house and watching one of the 2019 leader debates. I enjoy writing jokes and I did a bit of copywriting and having a specific theme is a fun way of engaging writing… Something crystallized in my mind and I thought I’m going to try this and I’ll do it for the run of the election basically because it’s a federal issue. And now I’ll never be rid of it. It’s far bigger than I am. In the next few weeks I’ll be at 2,000 followers, which is completely absurd. It started as a joke and I like to say the joke is now on me. But I’m having a blast putting these silly things out into the universe. People enjoy it and I get interviews about it.
I looked into the history of trains in preparation for this interview. I know the passenger service ceased in 1969 and the last freight stopped in 1988… I’m guessing you’re not old enough to have been on the passenger line.
I’ve caught rides on trains elsewhere but not here. It predated me by a few years… The history of it is complicated and long. I’m not a great expert on the history of rail transport in the province. I’ve been tweeting about it as long as I have.
You’re the Secretary-General of the National Convention on Rail Reconstruction! We expect a little bit of expertise!
Inventing titles for my bio is a passtime in itself. For a time I have a joke about the PERT but that got a bit dated so I decided to go with a communist-international thing. The socialist undertones of the account are poorly hidden…
I will say on the history part, the Sullivan Commission famously recommended and fed into the rails for roads project. The provincial government also did a report… that’s a fascinating one. It was commissioned by the provincial government and it was meant to be a competing report to the Sullivan report done by Cabot Martin… on the premise that if we didn’t get rid of the trains, how we could make it viable. And it actually had some interesting suggestions.
When we look back in history it can seem things are obvious and conclusions forgone. In your opinion, could we have saved the trains?
I think they definitely could have made it work. There were lots of rail sidings they could have built, funding models they could have explored. I think federal money, as in all things, changes fortunes.
I’ve been on trains, I’ve been to Europe, I went to Trinity when they had the derelict amusement park, and Disney World. What’s your experience with trains?
Other than Trinity Loop, I went there as a child. It was the place to be. I’ve taken trains. At various points in my life I’ve had the opportunity for more regular travel, in Europe trips over the years; France and Germany. They’re really big on trains there. France is held up as the big shining example of high speed rail but they’re not first in Europe. It’s Germany, by quite a margin.
And their train stations are so beautiful!
I love that we’ve preserved a lot of our train stations because of how folksy and cute they are. The Victorian train stations. The architecture is awesome. And in Canada I’ve ridden the light rail from Toronto to Calgary… I used to go to the Maritimes every now and again and I’d take the ocean [rail route] from Halifax to Moncton…
Here you can still see where the rail lines were.
Yeah, well the T’Railway of course. The infrastructure was one of the reasons it would have been difficult to keep the trains; expanding the narrow gauged bridges to carry the weight would be difficult. Some of our locomotives are still in service. There’s a big and active Newfoundland Facebook group and someone found them, they’re in South America somewhere. They’re from the ‘50s, those diesel locomotives. Still being used. Stuff lasts forever.
I don’t claim to be an expert. There are actually people alive in Newfoundland who are in the CN Pension association. Those people know trains… JP Coady who volunteers at the railway museum; him and his crowd, they know trains really well. I’m just an enthusiast but a really visible one.
Why is your anonymity important?
Anonymity is easier. Mostly I just don’t think it’s about me. I think people have really indicated that sentiment, they don’t really care who I am. A lot of people have met me now and that’s nice and really hilarious; that being the premise for meeting someone. The account, I don’t really attack anyone. I may make fun of the Premier but I don’t really punch down or punch laterally. I punch up. There’s nothing that controversial there, a lot of it is milquetoast, local humour.
Like redesigning the new come home year licence plate.
—which I didn’t do! That was a follower who did an amazing job. That and the stickers… It’s all pretty non-threatening. Also I’m just a dude. I don’t really have any power or effect in the real world. So it’s lighthearted enough that I’ve been able to get away with it. And especially as it’s become more successful I’m very much not interested in profiting from the account at all. People have offered to donate money so I can print stickers… I’ve spent probably $150 of my own dollars printing hundreds of these stickers just to give them away. Because it’s just a laugh. It’s foolish enough that it has gotten this big and has become this massive part of my life really without me doing anything to get there.
Yeah, you’re not taking out ads on Facebook to promote your Twitter account.
People I’ve met and then talk with more socially, I switch accounts because it’s just too strange.
I’m curious, how many people have guessed your identity as the person behind the account?
‘Guess’ is a small number. Two people who know me personally and knew me for years before I started tweeting. And then Andie Bulman, who has also written for [The Independent]… I met her years ago, going back to 2016 maybe into 2017… and she remembered enough about me then to remember I once joked in a rant about trains and politics. And it took her a while but she connected the dots and it was almost scary. Very impressive.
I saw her tweet months ago when she said she’d figured it out.
It blew up, that tweet. It was a huge one… She made me drop off a batch of stickers quickly and then run away so she wouldn’t be tempted to look out through the window. I think it was just those three, everyone else might have had a suspicion or something but probably 100 people know now, mostly people who have been told…
It’s always a little underwhelming to meet me, it’s like oh, it’s just a guy, whatever.
It’s not like you’re a former railway conductor who has an axe to grind or longs to the heyday of the beautiful train’s return.
I mean, my personal account has like 800 followers, so it’s not somebody saying “oh, it’s that guy.” Just a dude.
You touched on it when you were sitting down, but there are cranks who hate your joy—hate the love of trains
Some but not many. I’d say it surprised me, maybe it doesn’t. The account doesn’t matter that much. I don’t hashtag NLpoli in a lot of my tweets. A lot of engagement from a very fixed following. Usually when people do snark back at me I just engage with them because it’s hilarious. Not in bad faith or anything or to be mean. I just go back until they chuckle at themselves and say whatever
And fundamentally, what do they think I’m doing? What possible threat do I pose to their cookie cutter life? I am a non-force in politics.
You could create a political party.
In the last election I was really tempted to create a campaign ad—but I’ve ended up doing a lot of volunteering with the federal NDP. If I can prepare a bit more next time in the next election… I might try to arrange something ahead of time. I put out a tweet in the last election; I’m thinking about doing this, anyone want to help and I got so much—I think I tweeted that and then probably 20 minutes later my phone had 25 notifications from people saying they were interested.
There are political parties that are largely just parodies, and some act like pressure groups. Like the Pirate Party and the Rhinoceros Party.
I’ve thought about running for them before as a gag because that would be so funny. But usually partisanship for me is philosophically complicated and I hate engaging with it. But nonetheless it is important within that narrow scope. So when I steel myself and engage, it’s usually not for a bit. Like doing a little video ad and promoting it for a laugh would be hilarious. Because politicians deserve to be made fun of. This is the province that invented 22 Minutes and all that kind of stuff. It has a rich tradition of political satire that we’ve just lost. No one makes fun of politicians anymore. And they’re so … contemptible…
They really should be raked over the coals. They made a deal for money and power and this is what you should be prepared for: being roasted.
Even if you like politicians it is always a bit of a deal with the devil, because the people who are good at getting elected aren’t always entirely trustworthy people. They’re always a little bit contemptible, a bit slimy. But you’d know that going in.
Speaking of slimy, the history of the railway is that it wasn’t the government, it was the wealthy Reid family who started it. Scottish industrialists who got insane land deals from the government.
Yeah, that’s how they paid for it. And they became the largest private landholder in the world, I think at one point. It’s bonkers. But we had no money. The whole history of our run to Confederation is, I won’t say largely but significantly, defined by the misfortunes of building that railway as a small dominion. It’s just too expensive and then … we sold it off.
Even though it did so much good.
It was necessary, it opened up the interior. It connected parts of the province.
From St. John’s to Port aux Basques.
Yeah, hugely significant. Can’t really be overstated… The generations of Reids and government control and everything else.
The story of Newfoundland.
And it’s necessary. Highways are also very expensive. We built the TCH when we had a bit more money to play with. But it’s necessary. That’s one of the most common chirps I get on Twitter, ‘How are you going to pay for that’? Well the highway… the economic benefit is measured in other ways.
And other provinces have highways and trains. Why do we have to choose? Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?
Agreed. And again, it was in our Terms of Union that we would have it. The train and the ferries.
So we go to the Supreme Court and make our case!
That’s the real sort of political shit-take for this, right. You just challenge them on it. Because the way they got out of that responsibility was so gross. They dangled this thing in front of our eyes—this highway—and didn’t deliver on it. And then the province still had no money and had to sell off, leaving the bus lines and stuff. The private bus route is terrible and shut down during Covid. That’s really important stuff.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]