Barbara Kay: At $317 million, Via Rail is cheap to maintain Canada’s rail heritage


National Post - Thursday May 5th, 2016

Craig Glover/Postmedia Network
VIA Rail train 73, carrying passengers from Toronto to Windsor, rolls into the station in London, Ont.

Uh-oh. The federal auditor general’s office has just released a study casting a cloud, yet again, on the future of rail travel in Canada.

The report indicates an increase in late-arrival times over the past two years, from one in five trains to one in four. This deterioration in service – on-time performance being “the main factor in customer satisfaction” – has resulted in a decrease in passenger traffic from 4.1 million in 2010 to 3.8 million in 2014. Passengers down means public costs up: The government provided VIA Rail $56 million more in operating costs in 2014 than in 2010 – $317 million in all.

Figures like these are catnip to market libertarians, who can’t see the difference, in terms of what public conveyances governments should or should not subsidize, between a railway and stagecoaches. Let those who want to travel by train pay the full cost, they say, or let the railway die the natural death horse-drawn vehicles did. As a train lover/user, but more important, as a Canadian who believes we all benefit when the government guarantees core cultural institutions, I think subsidies to operate and improve VIA are easily defensible.

But first, a personal digression.

I live in Montreal, but work and family ties take me to Toronto quite frequently – at least once every six weeks. By preference, I travel by train whenever possible. I’m a spoiled brat, so I usually go Business Class (which isn’t quite what it was – linen-like napkins rather than linen, the meal served all at once rather than in civilized stages, but these, I know, are High Class Worries). That ain’t cheap, but it is cheaper than normal airline rates. Stress-wise, there’s no contest. The interiors have been upgraded, very nicely, I might add, with more comfortable seats and plenty of leg room. And when you add up the hours spent, rail and flying are almost a wash.

It takes me 10 minutes to get to Montreal’s Central Station. I can arrive there five minutes before departure time if I want and walk right on board, settle in immediately, open my laptop or Kindle or whatever, log into the free wi-fi, and get busy on business or pleasure for the next four or five hours (depending on whether it’s the express or not; personally I don’t care much – what’s an hour to a reader?)

On arrival at Union Station in Toronto, which in my case is usually on time or within 15 minutes of on time, so I guess – more on this anon – I am lucky, I generally hop on the subway and within 30 minutes am standing outside my son’s door, a two-minute walk from a subway station. At most, I have spent one hour in non-travel time, so my door-to-door time is about six hours.  

When I travel by air, I must allot 30 minutes to get there (by taxi more than triple the rate to Central Station) to arrive at the airport 90 minutes before departure and those 90 minutes are never pleasant or stress-free. Security checks are tedious, likewise the boarding process. The flight is never entirely restful, because you’re – you know – trapped in your tiny seat and up in the frickin’ air! You land. You can now take the UP train to downtown, as long as that’s where you want to go, another 45 minutes including access and debarkment time, or take a $70 cab ride which, depending on traffic, can be a full hour. Altogether, by air, I might save up to two hours over the train, but I will have lost way more than two hours in reading or work time, and added an incalculable degree of stress and irritation.

Rail traffic figures may be down, but there are still millions of people who feel, as I do, that travelling by train is pleasurable, relaxing and a far more civilized way to cover a moderate distance than by air. The solution to falling revenues is not to abandon VIA, but to commit to a renewed and intelligent plan to bring VIA up to – ahem – speed in, well, speed. And efficiency.

The auditor general notes, for example, that the late arrivals are largely not VIA’s fault, but a result of the fact that freight carriers and other railway carriers own and maintain about 98% of the tracks used by VIA, so they have the right of way, and can often force halts to passenger trains, over which VIA has no control. Moreover, the report finds that the government has refused to sign off on the railway’s business plan for a number of years, forcing it to operate on a year-by-year basis. “In this context, VIA could not fulfill its mandate as economically, efficiently and effectively as desired.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there should be a will because:

  • The railway is part of Canadian culture in an existential way; without the railway, there would be no Canada. It’s worth preserving, and if its worth preserving, it’s worth improving;
  • The railway is relatively “green,” and doesn’t pollute the environment to the same degree a plane would. Even the noise it makes is a pleasure to hear, unlike you-know-what’s taking off and landing;
  • Flying is dicey in bad weather, and we have a lot of bad weather; there should always be a reliable alternative in busy corridors;
  • When you ride in a train, you “see” Canada; when you fly, you could be anywhere;
  • $300 million is a pittance in the scheme of things. And anyway, don’t airlines get subsidized whenever there is a crisis? The entire Via subsidy is a third what Ottawa is considering bestowing on Bombardier for its over-budget, behind-schedule planes.
  • Oil is cheap today but could be expensive tomorrow. With trains, you know where you’re at cost-wise;
  • Trains aren’t just for vacationers, as some people seem to believe. With Internet services available, a good portion of train travellers are business people, and their travel time is work time;
  • Why don’t we try everything that works in Europe and Japan before we throw in the towel?

I don’t know what the answers are in resolving the freight-passenger conundrum, but I bet a lot of other smart people could find the answer if the government made solving the problem a priority. VIA is not only worth saving; the government should aim to make it competitive with air travel by fixing its deficits and introducing innovations to attract more users. And if that requires subsidies, so be it. Canadians have a right to ride the rails that made this country what it is, and so do their children.

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