Is there any solution for the current passenger rail crisis in Canada?

It seems that ever since VIA Rail Canada was formed in 1977 the same problems and grim realities
continue to exist.

Without any legislation to support their existence, VIA Rail seemed doomed from the start. Then came the disastrous decision to privatize our national railroad  CN Rail in 1995. There were no safeguards in place to protect VIA Rail our passenger rail service provider.  CN wasted no time in ensuring VIA was treated poorly: running second fiddle to freight operations.

It did not matter if it was the Liberals or the Tories in power federally. Each party has made draconian cuts to VIA's funding.

VIA Rail has done little to help its cause over the years with ridiculous high pricing and an arrogant management style that has made them unaccountable and out of touch with the public. The auditor general report identified deficiencies in VIA's project management systems and practices.

Today the status in Canada of our national passenger rail company VIA Rail must be considered as critically endangered. They need over $1 billion dollars to update their aging fleet. Their flagship train The Canadian has become a punching bag for CN with on time performance around 25% and delays between 10 and 24 hours do occur.

In desperation, VIA Rail's lawyer turned CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano has resorted to a $4 billion plan to run slow trains along a half a century old abandoned passenger rail corridor. Small communities like Sharbot Lake have been told by VIA Rail they will get passenger rail service returned. Other communities like Pontypool, Perth and Tweed are fighting for a stop along the route.

Poor treatment by CN of VIA trains running on CN tracks has been a serious problem for VIA but this extreme move to the former Ontario-Quebec Railway line has a myriad of its own problems.

Canadians dreaming of modern high speed passenger trains have been continually disappointed for the last 50 years as over 22 studies have been done in Ontario alone with no action taken by any government.

In Alberta 4 studies have sat on the shelf that has prevented Edmonton and Calgary being connected by high speed rail. In BC, they are undertaking their 1st study ($1 million) of the Vancouver- Seattle high speed train potential.

The Liberal government in Ontario has shown their commitment to high speed trains running between London-Kitchener-Toronto. This route was suggested in the 1995 study as the preferred route to Toronto. The proposal is now being studied in depth.

On a positive note the concept of the 3Ps, Public, Private Partnerships are under serious consideration for funding/building and operating the London-Toronto HSR proposal.

The provincial opposition Conservative party has not stated their support for the project. Their leader Patrick Brown and the party seems unable to articulate any plan for passenger rail in Ontario.

So the bitter reality is that more than 40 years after its creation, VIA Rail has the same fundamental problems today as it did then. Will the Trudeau government do what no other government has done before?

The federal Liberal government must:

1. Pass an Act of Parliament with legislation that clearly outlines what VIA Rail's mandate is.
2. Develop Regulations under the Act that:

  • protect the rights of passenger trains travelling on freight railroad, including developing a conflict resolution process with significant financial penalties for freight railroad companies that contravene the regulations.
  • secures adequate funding to provide a truly national passenger rail system for all Canadians from coast to coast.

3. Pursue a 3Ps performance based approach to resolve the significant infrastructure issues relating to modernizing Canada's rail infrastructure to have high speed trains travelling over 250km/h on dedicated track.
4. Give VIA Rail immediate funding for purchasing new passenger rail cars and appoint a competent person to oversee this project to ensure VIA Rail makes the best decisions that will benefit Canadian taxpayers.

Let us be cautiously optimistic for the renewal of passenger rail in Canada in 2018.

1 comment:

  1. Via Rail critically endangered — Oct. 10

    I read with interest Paul Langan's letter about the state of Via Rail. My daughter and her family live in the community of Hornepayne in northern Ontario. The Via train from Toronto to Vancouver, the Canadian, stops in Hornepayne so my wife and I have taken it from Toronto on a few occasions. And as Paul indicated in his letter, the Canadian certainly does run late. We were in Hornepayne recently and the train ran eight-and-a-half hours behind. We boarded at 12:30 a.m. instead of 4:10 p.m. Having taken this method of transportation up north before, we knew that late trains were quite possible and even likely, but eight-and-a-half hours?

    This lateness is not the train's fault, but since CN owns the track and the freight trains pay the bills, Via is a poor cousin, pulling over on to sidings frequently to allow the 100-plus car freight trains to roll past. At one point, north of Sudbury, we waited an hour on a siding for no less than three freight trains.

    I've heard rumours of Via perhaps shifting their service to CP Rail tracks which run farther south. But would the trains be on time under that scenario? It's high time that the federal government, which owns Via, works out a better solution with CN or CP. My wife and I have found plenty of tourists from many countries on the Canadian and such lateness does not inspire confidence among them for Canadian rail service. In fact, it's embarrassing.

    Dave Brown