Category Archives for "Latest News"

May 28

Auditor General’s Special Examination Report on VIA Rail

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News


The article below was originally prepared for the March/April version of “Ontario Report”.  To make it more readily available to website readers, it is reproduced here.

– – – – – – – –


        Going before the judge must be a troubling experience for federal government departments and Crown Corporations.  And so it likely was for VIA Rail Canada when the Auditor General (AG) published its Special Examination Report (SER) covering the period November 2013 to September 2015.  An understanding of VIA’s troubled legislative and political history is needed to put the SER in full perspective.  Successive federal governments who have repeatedly knelt before the personal automobile, the short-haul flight and have persistently ignored the very negative and social and economic impacts of a fragmented public transportation system and sub-par tourist industry are really a watermark on each page of this document.

         But VIA management, it points out, also have culpability and both VIA users and their advocates are well aware of their corporate missteps and spin machine that continue to both annoy and insult.  Although on-board services are quite acceptable by international standards and train staff are generally accommodating, one gets the feeling of a growing creakiness in the organization and the SER shines a light on the many reasons why.

         The full Auditor General’s report can be read on-line on the website of the Office of the Auditor General.  Some of the key points are as follows:

   Corporate governance.  It’s quite clear that the political nature of the VIA board precludes the necessary talent to plan, manage and operate a customer-focused passenger rail network.  Since 2008 VIA has been unable to obtain federal approval of its five-year corporate plan and has resorted to short-term measures to mitigate operational crises.  Whether this is a direct result of VIA management capability or stone-walling by entrenched federal government ideology is not clear from the report.  Either way, there is no future for VIA without a fully-funded, long-term corporate plan and a forward-thinking federal mandate.

   Frequency and track access.  The report discusses how this inhibits VIA operations and, superficially, one might be inclined to sympathize with VIA.  Both CN and CP are primarily focused on shareholder value, but CN recently rejected VIA’s accusations that it consistently gives priority to its freight over passenger traffic.  So where is the truth?  Why is Transport Canada not working with CN and CP on a better plan of mutual accommodation based the on facts?  Meanwhile VIA continues to display conflicting behaviour by announcing a dedicated Montreal – Toronto track plan, separate from the CN-owned infrastructure, while, at the same time telling Kingston passengers that their station will be modernized and trains “repurposed.”  In fact, VIA spent close to $500 million to add passing track on the current route through Kingston to reduce conflict with freights which should mean that a passenger-only dedicated tract Torontoo-Peterborough-Smith Falls is not required.

   Contract management.  The SER highlights the fact that many VIA capital projects have gone wildly over-budget (Exhibit 5 below).  It shows eye-watering variances that would result in a major management cull in a private company.  But an audit on infrastructure improvement, performed by KPMG, has deflected several access to information requests by concerned citizens.  The conclusion one must draw from this secrecy is that it comprises a litany of very poor planning and ineffective project management by VIA and other contractual players.

You are encouraged to read the entire Special Examination Report as it tells an interesting, if troubling story.  But the bottom line is that the fundamental problems rest squarely on the shoulders of Marc Garneau, Federal Minister of Transport, to sort the mess out.  Instead, he has chosen to kick the can down the road for another three years of study while funding VIA to “imagineer” its future rolling stock requirements.  Both actions are unacceptable.

         “Rise, ye, from the alter of the personal automobile, the short-haul flight, the rolling railway museum and misguided political dogma and soon give Canada a passenger railway that works – please.”

– Ken Westcar, Transport Action Ontario








Key financial indicators (in millions of dollars)






Total operating costs






Government funding – operations






Government funding – capital






Key operating statistics
Passengers (in thousands)






Average passenger load factor (%)






Overall on-time performance (%)






Number of employees






OAG Special Examination – VIA Rail Canada – Exhibit 1: Summary of VIA’s performance over the past five fiscal years.  Source: adapted from 2014 Annual Report, VIA Rail Canada.



Exhibit 5: Improvements to CN Kingston Subdivision rail structure

Initial project 2007 Revised project in light of 2009 Canada Economic Action Plan Project completion and results as of 31 Dec. 2014

$21 million

$251 million

$318.5 million

Improve track and some stations

160km of triple track

at $1.6M/km

70km triple track

at $4.5M/km

Expected benefits

Revised expected benefits

Actual results obtained

12 additional trains

14 additional trains

8 additional trains

Reduced travel times

Reduced travel times

Increased travel times

Improved on-time per-formance (stood at 82%)

Improved on-time performance

Worse on-time perfor- mance (average 65%)

$32 million in additional revenue

$32 million in additional revenue

No additional revenue

23% increase in ridership

23% increase in ridership

17% decrease

 in ridership since 2009

OAG Special Examination – VIA Rail Canada – Exhibit 5 (not all information included here)



The Auditor General’s report on VIA may be found on-line by searching for “VIA Rail Canada Inc.Special Examination Report2016.”

May 17

Dragging Equipment Detectors and Automatic Equipment Identifiers for Rail Safety

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News



Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau was the key-note speaker at a well-attended public forum on rail safety held in Toronto on April 27.   Several members of Transport Action Ontario spoke, particularly about the need for Positive Train Control, Dragging Equipment Detectors and Automatic Equipment Identifiers.


As followup, a letter providing more detail on the latter two ideas was sent to the Minister’s Policy Advisor.  The letter can be viewed here:  TAO-Chadha 2016-05-17


May 06

National Post commentary on VIA Rail, May 5, 2016

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News



The National Post’s Barbara Kay published a useful commentary on May 5, 2016 describing reasons why VIA Rail needs to be enhanced and become a federal priority.  The article is pasted below:

Commentary in National Post, May 5, 2016

Barbara Kay: At $317 million, Via Rail is cheap to maintain Canada’s rail heritage

Barbara Kay | May 5, 2016

 Uh-oh. The federal auditor general’s office has just released a study casting a cloud, yet again, on the future of rail travel in Canada.

The report indicates an increase in late-arrival times over the past two years, from one in five trains to one in four. This deterioration in service – on-time performance being “the main factor in customer satisfaction” – has resulted in a decrease in passenger traffic from 4.1 million in 2010 to 3.8 million in 2014. Passengers down means public costs up: The government provided VIA Rail $56 million more in operating costs in 2014 than in 2010 – $317 million in all.

Figures like these are catnip to market libertarians, who can’t see the difference, in terms of what public conveyances governments should or should not subsidize, between a railway and stagecoaches. Let those who want to travel by train pay the full cost, they say, or let the railway die the natural death horse-drawn vehicles did. As a train lover/user, but more important, as a Canadian who believes we all benefit when the government guarantees core cultural institutions, I think subsidies to operate and improve VIA are easily defensible.

But first, a personal digression.

I live in Montreal, but work and family ties take me to Toronto quite frequently – at least once every six weeks. By preference, I travel by train whenever possible. I’m a spoiled brat, so I usually go Business Class (which isn’t quite what it was – linen-like napkins rather than linen, the meal served all at once rather than in civilized stages, but these, I know, are High Class Worries). That ain’t cheap, but it is cheaper than normal airline rates. Stress-wise, there’s no contest. The interiors have been upgraded, very nicely, I might add, with more comfortable seats and plenty of leg room. And when you add up the hours spent, rail and flying are almost a wash.

It takes me 10 minutes to get to Montreal’s Central Station. I can arrive there five minutes before departure time if I want and walk right on board, settle in immediately, open my laptop or Kindle or whatever, log into the free wi-fi, and get busy on business or pleasure for the next four or five hours (depending on whether it’s the express or not; personally I don’t care much – what’s an hour to a reader?)

On arrival at Union Station in Toronto, which in my case is usually on time or within 15 minutes of on time, so I guess – more on this anon – I am lucky, I generally hop on the subway and within 30 minutes am standing outside my son’s door, a two-minute walk from a subway station. At most, I have spent one hour in non-travel time, so my door-to-door time is about six hours.  

When I travel by air, I must allot 30 minutes to get there (by taxi more than triple the rate to Central Station) to arrive at the airport 90 minutes before departure and those 90 minutes are never pleasant or stress-free. Security checks are tedious, likewise the boarding process. The flight is never entirely restful, because you’re – you know – trapped in your tiny seat and up in the frickin’ air! You land. You can now take the UP train to downtown, as long as that’s where you want to go, another 45 minutes including access and debarkment time, or take a $70 cab ride which, depending on traffic, can be a full hour. Altogether, by air, I might save up to two hours over the train, but I will have lost way more than two hours in reading or work time, and added an incalculable degree of stress and irritation.

Rail traffic figures may be down, but there are still millions of people who feel, as I do, that travelling by train is pleasurable, relaxing and a far more civilized way to cover a moderate distance than by air. The solution to falling revenues is not to abandon VIA, but to commit to a renewed and intelligent plan to bring VIA up to – ahem – speed in, well, speed. And efficiency.

The auditor general notes, for example, that the late arrivals are largely not VIA’s fault, but a result of the fact that freight carriers and other railway carriers own and maintain about 98% of the tracks used by VIA, so they have the right of way, and can often force halts to passenger trains, over which VIA has no control. Moreover, the report finds that the government has refused to sign off on the railway’s business plan for a number of years, forcing it to operate on a year-by-year basis. “In this context, VIA could not fulfill its mandate as economically, efficiently and effectively as desired.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there should be a will because:

  • The railway is part of Canadian culture in an existential way; without the railway, there would be no Canada. It’s worth preserving, and if its worth preserving, it’s worth improving;
  • The railway is relatively “green,” and doesn’t pollute the environment to the same degree a plane would. Even the noise it makes is a pleasure to hear, unlike you-know-what’s taking off and landing;
  • Flying is dicey in bad weather, and we have a lot of bad weather; there should always be a reliable alternative in busy corridors;
  • When you ride in a train, you “see” Canada; when you fly, you could be anywhere;
  • $300 million is a pittance in the scheme of things. And anyway, don’t airlines get subsidized whenever there is a crisis? The entire Via subsidy is a third what Ottawa is considering bestowing on Bombardier for its over-budget, behind-schedule planes.
  • Oil is cheap today but could be expensive tomorrow. With trains, you know where you’re at cost-wise;
  • Trains aren’t just for vacationers, as some people seem to believe. With Internet services available, a good portion of train travellers are business people, and their travel time is work time;
  • Why don’t we try everything that works in Europe and Japan before we throw in the towel?


I don’t know what the answers are in resolving the freight-passenger conundrum, but I bet a lot of other smart people could find the answer if the government made solving the problem a priority. VIA is not only worth saving; the government should aim to make it competitive with air travel by fixing its deficits and introducing innovations to attract more users. And if that requires subsidies, so be it. Canadians have a right to ride the rails that made this country what it is, and so do their children.



Apr 20

“New Directions – Advancing Southwestern Ontario’s Public Transportation Opportunities”

By Transport Action Ontario | Intercity Rail and Bus , Latest News , Urban Transit

Oxford County has developed an advocacy approach to advance Southwestern Ontario public transportation opportunities.  To support this, they have released a “New Direction” public transportation tool kit summarizing the key components required:

  • Partnerships
  • Multi-modal terminals
  • Urban Transit
  • Inter-Community Bus Service
  • GO Transit
  • High-Performance Rail
  • High-Speed Rail

The tool kit and advocacy plan draw heavily on the concepts advanced by Transport Action Ontario, such as Network Southwest Rail and Bus Plan, inter-community bus service modernization and High Performance Rail.   The tool kit has received interest from other parts of Ontario, including Western Ontario Wardens Caucus, Southwest Ontario Urban Mayors Conference, Niagara Chamber of Commerce and Eastern Ontario Wardens Caucus.

The tool kit can be viewed at this link:  Oxford County New Directions Final 160420