Back in 1977, VIA Rail was established to take the passenger rail business off the CPR’s and the (then) CNR’s hands to allow them to concentrate on what they were doing best – and profitably – that was adapting Canada’s aging rail infrastructure to provide a profitable and sustainable freight service. Branch lines were either torn up or sold off to short line operators.
Not that a sustainable freight service was a slam-dunk without the millstone of passenger trains around their necks – they still had to contend with union contracts and an indirectly-subsidized trucking industry. Railways have to pay for their track infrastructure – the trucking industry gets the highways for free – and leaves their deterioration for the taxpayers to pick up.
VIA Rail started off with great promise – until it hit the first major cuts that took place in 1981, followed by more in 1990. Arguably the unkindest cut of all then was the selling-off to a private company of the most scenic route tourist attraction in Canada through the Rockies. Since then it has been a tale of further cuts and gradual deterioration – as the service continued to be slashed, so naturally did passenger support decline, until today the service is a shadow of its former self. Delays and breakdowns are a common occurrence. Reported on-time performance is in the 70 per cent range. What is left of long distance passenger transportation (except for Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal) is moribund. The passenger trains that do exist spend a lot in of their time in sidings to let the bulk commodity freight trains get there on time. One doesn’t have to be a transportation expert to figure out there is a fundamental flaw in a concept of credible service when one doesn’t own the tracks needed to provide the service.
A fleet of second-hand (“Renaissance”) passenger cars from Europe was never a real bargain in the long run and in any event, VIA Rail’s equipment is now in urgent need of renewal.
In the middle of this crisis, what we hear over and over (especially just before elections) are the pipe dreams of high speed rail (HSR). Yes, many other countries are doing it. Fifty years ago (yes, it was in 1968) in Canada, it may have been a practical proposition with the short-lived Turbo train – if there had been the political will to make it happen. No doubt about it, one can’t operate a high speed rail system with myriads of grade crossings, let alone on someone else’s freight track. We discovered that with the first run of what was to be the future with the Turbo train – capable of doing over 200 km/hour chained to a 90 km/hour infrastructure – and even then it hit a truck on its inaugural run. Brilliant. That’s when we blew the HSR window of opportunity.
Things are in such bad shape now, we are way past the immediate chance of implementing high speed rail, but we still hear it touted for Quebec-Windsor – study after study says it’s marvellous, but there is not a chance to get it on the ground in less than 20 years. And then there’s that pipe dream of resurrecting the old abandoned Ontario & Quebec line between Toronto and Ottawa via Peterborough. Dream on folks – remember Peterborough once had VIA service into Toronto, but that disappeared in the 1990 cuts, and a proposal to revive just that short section is dead in the water.
All these wonderful schemes that are being floated about make no sense, when the need is so dire and urgent. We don’t have time for something that might be there in 20 years. Given the shape we’re in with passenger service, we need something now.
There’s one concept that might just work –
High Performance Rail
HPR makes sense when such a lot could be done now with a fraction of the billions that are being bandied about for the pipe dreams.
High-performance rail (HPR) is a stepping stone to high-speed rail (HSR). HPR uses current technology and current infrastructure to improve all aspects of the existing conventional rail service by building on the public funds that have already been invested. Operating at progressively higher speeds with modern cars and locomotives, HPR offers the potential of an improved passenger rail experience. Its major advantage is that it can deliver benefits before the entire project is completed, as the improvements are incremental without the need for investment in untried technology, totally new infrastructure and major and disruptive land acquisition.
This strategy is already employed on several Amtrak corridors in the U.S. It would be ideal for VIA Rail’s Quebec-Windsor Corridor, and could eventually be applied to other Canadian rail corridors. It could start with a single-digit billion dollar investment that would provide much faster and more frequent service than VIA Rail can now deliver. It has the potential of replacing VIA’s current ageing fleet with modern trains capable of operating at up to 200 km/hour. It would also upgrade the tracks, improve the signal systems and eliminate many dangerous grade crossings.
Equipment options using state-of-the-art current technology are available, and it might even be possible to piggy-back on orders being placed in the U.S.
The result would be more travellers, higher revenues, lower costs and improved public safety.
A second similar investment would build on the first to cut journey times, boost train frequency and attract even more travellers.
The economic benefits of HPR would be large. Advocates for HPR point out that rail improvement projects have been proven to generate three to four times their investment cost in economic spin-off and job creation.
Can we afford not to look at the HPR option? It seems to be a much better proposition than the endless pipedreams and studies to see whether we can afford something that might be in place 20 years down the road.
One last thought – the biggest challenge of all is how to get the sticky political fingers out of the pie, when the pie involves so much political financing. While VIA Rail is an independent federal Crown corporation, it was created by an Order-in-Council of the Privy Council, and not by legislation passed in Parliament. Legislation would enable it to seek funding on the money markets, and to make decisions that would put the viability of passenger rail service first, instead of having to dance to the tune being played by the incumbent political masters of whatever stripe. Today, to add to its woes, VIA Rail is sort of a pork barrel on steel wheels.