Passenger rail in Canada is in crisis

Elizabeth May

There has been a lot of attention of late to what moves on Canada’s rails. Train derailments, disasters such as Lac-Mégantic and near-disasters, such as the railcars loaded with toxic diluents that were suspended on a crumbling bridge over the Bow River during the June Calgary floods, have focused on the threat of unsafe rail cars and inadequate infrastructure. It really matters to accelerate the complete phase-out of the unsafe DOT-111 cars moving hazardous goods. Tragedies such as Lac-Mégantic must never happen again.

It really matters to ensure that grain farmers can move their harvest and that farmers in British Columbia have that grain as feed for livestock. Back in December 2013, farmers on Vancouver Island were desperate as a mere three-day supply of feed for livestock remained. High-cost and last-minute trucking got grain to the feed mills, but it was a very close call.

With the attention on serious concerns on our freight traffic, it is easy to miss the looming crisis in passenger rail.

VIA Rail is in trouble. While billions have been committed to VIA by the Harper administration, a very welcome investment, the spending has been concentrated in the Windsor-Quebec corridor, leaving the transcontinental, remote and rural rail service at risk.

Passenger rail in Canada is in crisis. The long-standing service The Ocean between Montreal and Halifax has lost half of its service in VIA cuts, from six days a week to only three. This route has existed since 1875, built as part of the Intercolonial Railway. Meanwhile, CN Rail has put 70 km of track between Bathurst and Miramichi, N.B., up for sale. It no longer uses that stretch for freight. The remaining user is VIA. Leaders from municipal governments, CUPE, local NGOs, Green MPs, and New Democrats have been pressing to keep the trains rolling from Montreal to Halifax.

Can we afford $10-million for this track? Considering that the February 2014 budget document (which I will insist we should call the “annual thick brochure” since it does not actually include a budget), committed $10-million to two years’ worth of snowmobile trails, I don’t know how the Harper Administration can credibly say “no.” I don’t think they want New Brunswickers imagining the 70 km passenger rail gap being handled by snowmobile relays.

At the other end of Canada, on Vancouver Island, rail service between Courtenay and Victoria is desperately in need of a new agreement, investment in rails and a new station in Victoria. The Island Corridor Foundation claims a tentative agreement has been reached with VIA Rail and the Southern Railway of B.C. to resume vital daily service on the E and N Corridor Railway, a claim VIA denies. With a growing population on southern Vancouver Island and the potential for properly scheduled passenger rail taking thousands of commuter vehicles off the road, this link is essential. We need the minister to ensure parties reach a firm agreement.

As the Toronto-Vancouver Transcontinental The Canadian snakes its breathtaking way across Canada, it must not be forgotten that just as is the case with The Ocean, while wealthier tourists love the bedroom and dining car service, lower-income Canadians need the economy train. Linking the country from coast to coast (sadly missing Newfoundland and Labrador at this point) is part of the national identity.

It could be improved by adjusting the route along the Great Lakes. One of the world’s most spectacular and popular scenic rail rides was the run from Sudbury to Thunder Bay. It was also profitable. Restoring it would add to the sustainability of VIA, and help boost Canada’s flagging tourism.

As VIA faces financial and ridership targets, the cutbacks inevitably cause a drop in passenger miles. The Ocean dropped four per cent last year, but its service was also cut in half. If its route through New Brunswick is not secured quickly, The Ocean could lose a whole season of tour operators and travellers—a disaster from which it would be unlikely to recover.

Unlike Amtrak, south of the border, VIA has no enabling legislation, no statutory mandate. Just before resigning her seat, Olivia Chow put forward a private member’s bill to establish such a legislative mandate. That bill should be taken up by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and used as a way to put her stamp on the sustainability of rail in Canada.

We need to overhaul the system for rail travel in Canada. We need to stop sabotaging VIA by the historical mistake of giving freight the ownership of tracks built through public investment. We need to update and modernize track to allow for high-speed rail along those routes where it would be profitable, starting with Edmonton to Calgary.

It is a feeble excuse to abandon passenger rail claiming our geography works against it. Why then do we maintain, at public expense, a vast highway system? Why do cars and trucks travel for free on our highways, when rail is stigmatized for requiring subsidies to operate? It’s time to get Canada’s rail, for freight and people, back on track.

Originally published in The Hill Times