Westcar: Passenger rail aid good for economy and planet
It’s not entirely the fault of Via Rail, but a basic failure of successive governments to understand the importance of railway infrastructure and transportation in a large country like ours. Rapidly evolving social, economic and environmental factors dictate a need for change.
Privatization has allowed our major rail freight carriers to discard routes and rails that make no contribution to their bottom line. And it works, given the current price of CP and CN stocks. The need to “sweat the asset” — that is, to make the best possible use of their privately owned, capacity-constrained infrastructure by running longer trains — is why Via has often been pushed aside. Federal and provincial governments have generally taken a hands-off approach in the belief market forces should govern the people and freight transportation business.
Many of Via’s problems are therefore systemic. They’re not going to be an easy fix especially when the situation could yet deteriorate further.
The concept of building new passenger train-only routes is an option, but the cost and time required to get such services up and running is staggering. Planning, environmental assessments, land acquisition, litigation and construction could take 15 to 20 years. The idea that such projects could attract private-sector development capital is, therefore, doubtful.
The Sept. 3 edition of the Economist noted, “The (U.K.) government calculated that cost-benefit ratio for expanding rail capacity on existing lines was almost 50 per cent higher than for building HS2 (a new high-speed rail line between London-and Birmingham). For some improvements the benefits were eight times greater than the costs.”
This comparison might not be directly transferable to Canada, but it should give planners and politicians pause for thought. It also supports federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s logic that we need to progressively match increased capacity to demand growth to control costs while offering affordable fares, optimized schedules, punctuality and modern trains in place of Via’s rolling museum pieces. But are these just good words or intended actions?
The relationship between freight railways and senior government in Canada has never been warm and fuzzy. Regulatory burdens are an issue as well as frequent bureaucratic ineptitude. But many advocates of rail transportation believe government and industry must develop a win-win relationship that could boost freight capacity, safety and speed while accommodating needed upgrades to Via’s services. And the way to do this is to make existing rail infrastructure do more for everyone, including the environment.
The argument this is not possible is largely facile. Governments think nothing of pushing new highways across valuable farmland, through solid rock, across lakes and rivers, irrespective of technical challenges. The same thinking needs to be applied at federal and provincial levels when it comes to existing rail expansion.
It can be done incrementally with the removal of bottlenecks as a priority. Adding capacity, such as multiple tracking and improved crossovers, can follow. Progress can then match anticipated demand. Construction and regulatory lags will be much less than with a completely new route.
Applying new digital technology in the form of positive rain control or even more advanced systems would lift the rail industry out of its 1980s lethargy. Making Canadian trains faster, safer and more productive with fail-safe systems should be the goal.
Why? Because without a balanced passenger and freight transportation system our national economy and quality of life will remain impaired while our international climate-change commitments remain an embarrassing failure.
The idea Canadian government and industry can pursue a largely win-lose model belies the fact that most other G7 countries are already embarked on co-operative efforts to move people and freight more effectively by rail.
Attractive stations are always nice, as are grand plans. But, if you have to wait for hours for the next train and never be sure that you’ll reach your destination on time and at reasonable cost, they will be absent any meaningful public utility and remain just an expensive hobby.
Ken Westcar is a Woodstock resident.