Undoing the ties that bind. It is fair to observe that since the 1980s, our federal government has been getting out of the transportation business. Since the 80s, Transport Canada has been privatizing what it owned and operated or downloaded to other jurisdictions. CN was sold off and railways deregulated. Ports have been abandoned or turned over to local entities. Airports have been turned over to municipalities or to a few airport authorities. While VIA Rail was described by one wit as having been born “going out of business,” it would be closer to the mark to say that, with the exception of remote services, the company has been forced to contract by deliberate decisions over the years to take away trains that had good ridership. VIA is now truly a shadow of its former self.
The VIA funding roller coaster. In the Harper era, VIA was funded for an ambitious plan to upgrade track and even to add third-track to segments of CN between Toronto and Montreal. The program aimed to increase frequencies in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. Locomotives were to be rebuilt and the LRC coach fleet refurbished. But, with a change of management, instead of progress, VIA became a case of arrested development. The CN Kingston Subdivision upgrade went overbudget for substantially less track than originally planned. The upgrade of track on the North Main Line corridor betwen Georgetown, Kitchener, and London, along with the planned six trains a day, disappeared. The LRC rebuilding program ground to a crawl and went overbudget. Budget cuts in 2012 caused VIA to chop train services especially in Southwestern Ontario. The Montreal-Halifax Ocean was cut from six days a week to three, resulting in a decline in ridership but no cost savings! A passenger train service that had been useful for basic transportation thus became useless or an ordeal.
To add to the tale of woe, during this period of decline, on-time performance of VIA trains deteriorated significantly. The freight railways were moving to longer freights and the oil boom added new traffic. CN asked VIA to add a fourth night of travel to the Toronto-Vancouver Canadian to help improve its on-time performance, an improvement that never materialized. Under federal railway legislation, VIA has the right to take railways to the regulator to obtain service compliance, but neither VIA nor Transport Canada has ever exercised this right to compel CN to provide VIA with the fair treatment it deserves and pays for under its train service agreement with CN. Apparently in Canada paying for expensive track access does not come with an actual time slot, not the industry norm. Deteriorating on-time performance of VIA trains has generated tens of thousands of hours of lost time for customers, including lost connections and even lost days for long-distance train riders. To this day, Canada does not have comprehensive passenger bills of rights legislation for rail and air travelers.
TAO has frequently pointed out that in the U.S. regional passenger rail development and expansion is following the model of High Performance Rail (HPR): incremental track improvements permit the introduction of frequent fast train service in a corridor with various sized cities. State government and federal funding programs make this innovation possible. This has not been the model for VIA. Since 2015 VIA has made the occasional offer to return cut trains, but it doesn’t happen. And VIA has made no commitments whatsoever about its long-distance trains. Rather, VIA has come forward with a proposal that concentrates on a new, dedicated high-frequency rail (HFR) line between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal through Smith Falls, Ontario, a route bypassing the Toronto-Kingston-Cornwall-Montreal corridor with substantial population. The claim is made that frequent fast trains Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal will make a profit. Future extensions of HFR at both ends of the initial corridor are mentioned, along with rejigged Toronto-Kingston service. TAO has been highly critical of this proposal. For present purposes we note that this plan has not been a hit with the federal government.
VIA Rail on hold. The election of a federal Liberal majority government in October 2015 raised the hope that passenger rail might return as a consequential element of public transportation. Advocates of better passenger rail were disappointed when Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate to the Minister of Transport excluded any reference to VIA Rail whatsoever. While VIA has continued to try to build a political constituency for HFR, their main recent effort has been obtaining a new fleet of coach cars for the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. Fleet renewal is absolutely necessary at this time. It takes from four to five years for manufactures to deliver new passenger rail cars. VIA has made a federal funding request for its corridor fleet renewal, yet it was noticeably absent from Trudeau’s February 2017 budget, although the corporation did obtain minimal continuing operating funds. VIA’s 2016 Annual Report makes it clear that its whole fleet is clapped-out and “…VIA Rail may not be able to find quality cars in the short term to support growth while adding frequencies” (p. 60), not to mention simply continuing what it is already straining to do.
Is no news good news? The federal government has put off making decisions about passenger rail in Canada by the well-known device of studying it. VIA’s HFR plan is being assessed by a $3.3 million three-year study that won’t be ready until just before the next election. As part of the 2016 budget, VIA was authorized to hire a consultant to prepare a formal corridor fleet renewal. With no mention of HFR in the 2017 budget, it appears that this proposal is in limbo. Both VIA and the federal government have failed to release anything that gives any indication of the progress being made on both of these long-range studies.
We can be thankful that at least the feds continue to support VIA’s minimal system, apparently betting that the equipment will last long enough to complete current studies. VIA’s triangle service Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal will likely continue as is; it’s a route that shows that relatively decent frequency is popular with the public. That leaves the rest of the system in a precarious position. VIA’s long-distance trains, regional services in Southwestern Ontario and parts of Quebec, and even remote services face serious trouble. Lack of quality equipment leads to unwelcolmed breakdowns. With no solution to track access reliability, the plague of poor on-time performance will continue. Poor quality track that typifies too many portions of some of VIA routes is an added concern. Taken together, these conditions will drive away riders and marginalize rail as a public transportation option in Canada.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Around the world, rail travel is popular and growing when properly provided. “Only in Canada, you say. Pity.” takes on a whole new meaning if it refers to trying to find a train to board.
Editorial blog by Tony Turrittin, President, Transport Action Ontario, April 18, 2017.