The ‘Foreign Dimension’ in Transport Geography

By Benjamin Sacks

‘A platitude is that which every one admits and no one remembers’, W L Grant surmised in May, 1911, ‘[t]he platitude with which I begin is that Canada is a large country…a great truth’. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, British and Canadian officials scrambled to strengthen Canada’s authority from the relatively urbanised Atlantic and Great Lakes regions to the sparsely populated West. They undertook construction of one of the longest railroads in the world, a line traveling west from the rivers and inlets of Québec, across the expansive Alberta prairie, and through the Rocky Mountains to British Columbia. Today, Canadian National Railways (CN) stands as one of Canada’s most important assets, a symbol of the Dominion and Canadian pride, and an economic lifeline stretching the length of the North American continent (p. 598). But its name, Canadian National, is perhaps misleading, for CN’s network, through corporate acquisition, now extends south, through the Midwest and down the length of the Mississippi River, through the heartland of the United States (see image).

Julie Cidell’s (University of Illinois) analysis in the most recent edition of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers both acknowledges resurgent interest in transport geography and explores a contentious recent episode in CN’s expansion into the United States. In late 2007, CN approached US Steel with an offer to purchase Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E), a vital connector railroad network in Chicago. Similar in scope to Boston’s (in)famous ‘Big Dig’, the EJ&E was constructed to increase transport efficiency in one of the United States’s busiest railroad centres. As is often the case in densely populated areas, local residents protested against CN’s plans to increase railroad traffic from an estimated five trains per day to nearly thirty trains per day (pp. 598-601).

Cidell’s article is an excellent definitional source, explicating how planning officials understand ‘sky’, ‘airspace’, and Cidell’s own variant: ‘trainspace’ – the legal, safety, and geographical environment surrounding the trains, railroad tracks, and properties. The author seeks to explore how trainspaces interact with other spaces, including (perhaps most notably) national space.

Although the United States and Canada are traditionally extraordinarily close allies, CN’s ambitious proposal catalysed highly defensive reactions from US residents. Although those affected by the suggested changes cited noise, smog, and other intrusions, a principal concern was that a foreign corporation wanted to manage a vital American trainspace. Although CN officials were quick to point out that US employees could benefit from the company’s proposal, legitimate concerns were repeatedly raised over how the acquisition of US railroads by a Canadian firm would benefit any actors other than Canadian interests. Ciddell’s article provides an exciting framework to model other air- and trainspace conflicts throughout the world.


W L Grant, 1911, Geographical Conditions Affecting the Development of Canada, The Geographical Journal 38 362-74.

Julie Cidell, 2012, Fear of a Foreign Railroad: Transnationalism, Trainspace, and (Im)mobility in the Chicago Suburbs, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 593-608.

Also see: Benjamin J Sacks, 2010, Rethinking Transport Geography, Geography Directions, 25 August 2010.

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