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Railway History by David Spencer

Transit Progress Derailed

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Transit Progress Derailed,David Spencer, 268 pp., 6 x 9, 22 maps, Index, History, October 2012

ISBN: 978-1-897190-77-7 (paper) . . . $29.95

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Transit Progress Derailed

In the early 1900s, electricity was THE booming technology, and with it, electric railways. Almost all electric power was privately-generated, and the continent’s street railways delivered significant profits to their private shareholders.

Although he was a prosperous London, Ontario manufacturer (while simultaneously the Mayor and the Conservative member of Ontario’s provincial Legislature), Adam Beck believed in the benefits of a publicly-owned electricity grid (‘Power at Cost!’). He was opposed to privately-owned companies whose high rates inadequately served public needs. Beck was convinced – and convincing – that government-ownership would result in lower costs, to be passed on to the public, causing the use of electric technology to spread well beyond the privileged elite.

His political acumen and connections resulted in the 1906 creation of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission – Ontario Hydro – the world’s first publicly-owned utility. Premier Whitney appointed Beck as Chairman while also sitting as the government's ‘Power Minister’. Hydro would advocate a municipally-owned hydro-electric system, funded by the Province, generating electricity from Niagara Falls as well as other Ontario lake and river sources. The utility would thus spur economic development by bringing cheap public power to Ontario's many energy-hungry municipalities.

It would only be a short time after the first public power flowed through the wires to Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener-Waterloo) in October 1910 that Beck had delivered the first step in his grandiose plan to place Hydro at the centre of the province’s economic, political and social agenda.

Two years later, at a Brantford, Ontario meeting, he mused aloud that what the Province really needed was a series of electrically-powered railways. He was knighted by King George V in 1914 for his promotion of electricity and development of transmission lines, but, with the 1915 introduction of legislation outlining his network of long-distance electric interurban railways (also known as ‘radials’) scheme, Beck had unknowingly created the process that would cost him his career.

World War I placed his plan on hold, and in the 1919 post-war election, the Conservatives were swept out of power. Despite losing his seat, Sir Adam Beck continued to enjoy considerable support from municipal politicians throughout the province, and pushed his radial railway proposal even harder. He envisioned linking the province’s many municipalities through a series of electrically-powered railways to two core areas: Hamilton serving communities on the western end of Lake Ontario, and to the burgeoning hub of Toronto. It never happened. Now out of government – though still chairman of Hydro – he was up against an antagonistic Premier Ernest Drury. The Premier and his cabinet members feared Beck’s influence with the many municipalities would give Sir Adam the opportunity to consolidate his power base and undermine the provincial government's ability to control spending.

In typical Canadian fashion, Drury deflected the issue to a newly-created Royal Commission, appointing Justice Robert Franklin Sutherland to chair an investigation into the radial railway proposals. With an avowedly anti-radial chairman, the game was over. The Sutherland Commission heard 13,376 pages of transcript evidence and delivered its damning conclusion: that the popularity of automobiles meant the project was not financially feasible. This book is based on the evidence that was extracted from the discovered Sutherland transcripts and numerous memos and correspondences, all of which fortunately had been kept by Hydro from its earliest days. It is a story of power politics, skulduggery, on and in a multitude of places, and in many cases it shows just how dark provincial politics could be in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps current events demonstrate that hasn't changed?


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