Loco For Trains: Interview With Filmmaker Dan Nystedt

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“I shot a documentary in India about this awesome school for poor youth there. It was pretty amazing to spend time in this tiny little village in Southern India. The cool thing about this village was that they were building a railway to the village and everyone was stoked. They were like ‘this is going to save us, this is really going to improve our quality of life’. And then I came back to Sault Ste. Marie and found out that they’re going to cancel the rail line- they don’t want to use it anymore. It’s just so short sighted to be getting rid of our rail.”

Dan Nystedt married into trains- sort of.

“All great stories start with a girl. I met this girl who is now my wife. My mother-in-law is Linda Savory-Gordon and she is one of the co-founders and co-chairs of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains. I just started becoming fascinated with the all the issues around trains and started listening to her. And every now and then she’d say- ‘hey there’s a documentary in here’ -because that’s what I do. And I didn’t believe it. And then they were going to shut down the Huron Central Line between the Sault and Sudbury.”

From that point Dan began conducting his own research and found that passenger and freight train service were not only being eliminated in certain areas of Canada but the very infrastructure that connected the nation, and indeed connected the nation to the world, was being yanked out one railroad tie at a time. His ‘recreational’ interest and exploration eventually spawned the ambitious documentary De-Railed: The National Dream’. Dan rode the rails across Canada and through the United States identifying the most urgent concerns of those relying on rail and illuminating the innovative solutions developed by many local communities.

“I went into the project just randomly talking to people and going to different rail events and really if you watch my taped interviews- the first 5 minutes of most of them I’m just a naïve guy speaking to another guy that’s been in the business for 50 years that knows so much he’s forgotten how much he actually knows. And I learned so much.”

Most recently Dan has been assisting with the filming of Spirit Land: In Search of the Group of Seven’. The documentary follows adventure couple, Joanie and Gary McGuffin, and art historian, Michael Burtch, as they track the footprints left by the Group of Seven, identifying over 450 original painting sites as pristine and untouched as they were 100 years ago. And like the Group, the film crew rode the rails deep into the Algoma District to rediscover these magnificent vistas.

Dan found his love for story telling when he was just a youngster finding his start in creating plays for the radio with his elementary school buddies. He went on to explore his love for video in high school and then later on to Fanshawe College with a heavy concentration of film classes in the arts program. Dan is the owner ofForm Production and a co-owner of Title Records.

In his career and, most certainly in film, trains and the railways have been recurring themes. “Trains are everywhere. If you haven’t been on a train you know what one looks like. The Lumiere brothers filmed Arrival of the Train’ in the late 1800’s. People emptied the theatre running in fear because they thought a train was going to tear through the wall. Ever since then there hasn’t been a movie that comes out where trains aren’t a part of the story in some way. A train is iconic. Trains represent growth, prosperity and industry.”

But there’s only so much train nostalgia that Dan’s willing to chug when the topic turns to saving passenger rail service in Northern Ontario.

“When I was making De-Railed I spent over a year of my life travelling Canada coast to coast a couple of times and down to the States on the rail. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was like the coolest Cary Grant experience to be sitting on the train, eating dinner, staring out the window, sitting across from somebody who could be from anywhere in the world. I’m not saying that there isn’t nostalgia or romance or whatever when one thinks of the train. I’m just saying that that can’t be our argument for saving it. There are way better arguments to be put forward for saving it.”

CN_Loco_-9612As a storyteller, Dan holds dear the many pages in history that remind us that the railway was instrumental in making Canada a united nation. “The railways developed our towns and cities and the country as a whole. We have parents or grandparents that remember when the railroad was built and what the rail did for their city.”

While filming De-Railed, Dan went from town to town gathering up stories from regular folks whose lives were influenced by trains and the railway. Dan was shocked when he learned that not only was the way of train life coming to an end for many small communities, but the very railway infrastructure itself was being ripped off the face of the Canadian landscape where it was laid over a century ago.

“People don’t realize and don’t appreciate what is happening to the foundation of our country and economy. The railway is a huge part of our infrastructure and the fact that it is being dismantled- it’s really ridiculous. When I was out in the Prairies talking to different people for De-Railed there were stories about little towns and literally the day that the rails started being torn up from the ground spending habits changed. The way people shopped for their groceries or did their banking changed. The way they dealt with life started to change and within a few short years it became a ghost town.

If the rail pulled out of Sault Ste. Marie that would have a huge effect on our industry. And a huge effect on our industry has huge effects on our economy. It’s this noise in the background. It’s this thing that stops you in the middle of traffic at the least convenient moment. But the thing that’s doing that is a rail system that connects our city to the world economy.”

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The environmental benefits of rail travel can’t be forgotten. It isn’t just the people capacity that a train can haul or the efficiency of diesel fuel, but also that the maintenance of rails is far less than the upkeep of roads.

In the January 2009, the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies released the report entitled‘Railways and the Environment: Building on the Railways Environmental Strengths’. Setting out to decrease the amount of carbon emissions produced by rail, preliminary data revealed that in 2005 rail was second only to pipeline transport modes that discharged .8% of total CO2 emissions.

“The alarming performance of the transport sector is largely due to road traffic, which accounts for 72% of transport emissions in the EU (2005 figures). In contrast, rail accounts for just 1.6% of total transport emissions, while it transports 6% of all passengers and 10.3% of all freight. This is a clear indicator that railways can do more for less. A modal shift from road and air towards rail is one obvious way to reduce CO2 emissions.”

According to the Association of American Rails, “Moving freight by rail is 4 times more fuel efficient than moving freight on the highway. Trains can move a ton of freight nearly 450 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel.”

Dan is the first person not to call himself a train expert but he is a researcher and documentarian.

Reaching into the back pastures of his memory he reaped out, “On average a train will move a ton of freight over 450 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. And a transport will move about 130 miles on a gallon- but then you have to also take into account the rubber tires on the tread, the asphalt road surface that it’s on -the four lanes of asphalt that it’s on, and the massive investment that has been put forth for that mode of transportation to exist. Show me a 100 year old road because I can show you a 100 year old rail across Canada that is still here. A rail that doesn’t have to be dug up and redone every few years and widened and maintained and salted and sanded- it’s just ridiculous. I’m not saying that everyone needs to ride the train but it should definitely be an option.”

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train 2In January 2014 the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) announced that they were axing passenger service from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst. The decision came from Transport Canada who made the decision that the Algoma Central Rail (ACR) no longer met the criteria for the Remote Passenger Rail Program (RPRP).

RPRP “provides funding to ensure that safe, reliable, viable and sustainable passenger rail services are provided to certain areas of the country where these services are the only means of surface transportation for remote communities.” The ACR received 2.2 million dollars in funding through RPRP. Following the announcement, Federal Transport Minister, Lisa Raitt, informed stakeholders that the funding would be extended by one year to allow for the development of local solutions.

Dan doesn’t hide his enthusiastic frustration when people refer to the RPRP grant as a ‘subsidy’. “A lot of people will say of the ACR or Ontario Northland or any of these lines receiving this grant that people should have to pay their fair share if they want to have a cabin or whatever along the railway. ‘Yes’ there’s people that have camps and use rail and people that use rail during inclement weather between Hearst and the Sault, or they use rail to go hiking, camping or skiing- but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is ‘yes’ it’s getting money from the government to exist- but so do the roads that everybody uses every day and if people had to pay toll costs for those roads every time they got into their car the toll cost would be astronomical right? So it’s this whole idea that when gov’t talks about roads it’s an investment, when they talk about rail it’s a subsidy. It’s bonkers is what it is. That’s investing in our infrastructure no matter what the mode of transportation.”

Following Raitt’s sobering proclamation, local rail advocates and organizations and the City of Sault Ste. Marie hastened to procure hard data that demonstrated the economic value of rail in Northern Ontario– specifically passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. ACR passenger stakeholders commissioned BDO to undertake and produce the final report ‘Algoma Central Railway: Economic Impact Assessment’.

The report indicated that, “between 2005 and 2008, ACR passenger revenues were between $2.5 million and $2.8 million” where $2.2 million of that profit was generated from investment provided through Transport Canada. However, the spin off dollars created by the government grant is significant. Taking in to account the direct, indirect and induced economic impact, the overall total economic annual impact in 2013 ranged from $38, 136, 000 to $48, 072, 000.

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In his filmmaking travels, dedicated to rail or not, Dan stumbled across universal truths about trains. “There might be different purposes for rail across Canada but overall people are talking about the same issues- ‘they’re going to cancel the train. We have to save the train. This is why we have to save the train.’ It all comes back to the same common denominators- economics, environment and efficiency.”

And after a moment of silence, Dan adds, “Who knows? Trains are a very social way to travel- even more so than airplanes. You know if you’re travelling on a train for any long distance they don’t bring anything to you. You have to get up and go to it. You go to the dining car, you have a sleeper car. It just seems to me a lot more social than an airplane or definitely more so than being in your own automobile. But it’s like anything in this day and age- we’re becoming more isolated- Facebook, internet, media. We’re very self-sufficient you know. Maybe it will be nostalgia that brings people back in hordes to the trains. It will be people that want to connect- and not just geographically. People that just want to have a conversation- and they ride the train to do that.”

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In October 2014, co-chair of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, Al Errington, revealed that there have been four credible third parties express interest in taking over the passenger train and the Agawa Canyon Tour train. An announcement confirming a successful third party is anticipated within the very near future.

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