Who is killing Canada’s passenger trains? 

Sep 27, 2017 @ 08:15

Who is killing Canada’s passenger trains?  It can’t be our prime minister.

Since he was a babe in his mother’s arms, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been exposed to the virtues of train travel.  That’s thanks to his father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had a genuine affection and respect for passenger trains.  He travelled on and campaigned from them frequently, and his government created VIA Rail Canada in 1977.

When the future Prime Minister Trudeau was six months old in 1972, his parents took him to visit his grandparents in Vancouver on the aptly-named Canadian Pacific Railway flagship, The Canadian.  They travelled up the rugged Ottawa Valley, around the rocky rim of Lake Superior, across the rolling prairies and over the four mountain ranges the CPR conquered in 1885 to earn its reputation as “the wedding band of Confederation.”

Our prime minister later travelled to the Maritimes with his father and their close friends, future Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc (a railroader’s son) and his son, Dominic, who is now MP for Beauséjour.  They rode aboard CN’s Ocean Limited over the railway built as a mandatory requirement of Canadian confederation in 1867.  And when he took his father home to his final resting place in Montreal, it was on a flag-adorned version of The Canadian, operated by the Crown rail passenger corporation his father helped create in 1977.

Trudeau has had train exposure of late, too, including appearances at GO Transit’s Toronto shops and Montreal’s Central Station to announce funding of urban rail projects.  More significantly, a recent trip carried his family’s passenger train connection to the next generation.

On July 30, the prime minister took his daughter, Ella-Grace, from Revelstoke to Calgary aboard the CPR’s Canada 150 Train.  She wore a CPR safety vest and got to blow the whistle on the beaver-crested locomotive.  Her father noted he was about her age when he started riding passenger trains with his father and discovered they brought families and Canada together.

But what of Canada’s passenger trains today?  They are deteriorating rapidly and drastic action is required, especially on VIA’s once-great and always-late Canadian.  While writing this piece on the afternoon of September 25, I discovered on VIA’s website that one westbound Canadian was seven hours late on the prairies, another was 21 hours late out of Jasper and a Toronto-bound edition was nearly 10 hours late in Northern Ontario.  This is typical performance today.

Meanwhile, VIA headquarters staff in their Place Ville Marie offices churn out multi-billion-dollar dream schemes unlikely to ever materialize and feel-good press releases to paper over the whole mess.

Public money is undeniably required to modernize our rail passenger system, but just throwing more bucks into VIA’s mink-lined sink hole isn’t the answer.  The government must seriously re-think this hobbled iron horse’s role and craft a rehab plan that outlasts any four-year election cycle.  Our elected public servants must be reminded they only have temporary custody of VIA on behalf of its true owners – the public.

The problem here isn’t necessarily Trudeau, it’s his advisers.  They don’t understand that a revitalization of our passenger trains would couple with their endlessly-stated devotion to economic stimulus, national unity, regional inclusiveness, tourism development and a national climate change strategy.  All would be boosted by improved rail service and all are hampered by letting VIA rot out.

If Trudeau needs affirmation of this, he can just ask any of the six Liberal MPs who possess at least a modicum of appreciation for trains:  Andy Fillmore, Geoff Regan, David Graham, Bob Bratina, Ken Hardie and Bob Nault (a former CPR train conductor from Kenora).

Given that so much power rests in the hands of so few on Parliament Hill, Trudeau needs to gather his backroom power brokers for a chat about his very personal rail connections.  Advisers such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford might then grasp what a rail renaissance would do for their leader, their government and their careers, especially with mid-term voter discontent rippling across the land.  The PM might pass around the many snapshots showing him enjoying the pleasures of passenger trains in his youth and most recently with his daughter.

To fix our rail passenger system, Trudeau need only act on a view he expressed aboard the CPR’s sesquicentennial train:  riding trains reminds us of their role in nation building.  He can reset his government’s signals to make our passenger trains nation builders and unifiers again.  For reasons both personal and practical, he should do it.

Greg Gormick is a rail analyst and policy adviser whose clients have included VIA, CP, CN and numerous elected officials of all political stripes.  He currently serves as transportation adviser to Oxford County in Southwestern Ontario.

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  1. This summer I fulfilled a dream to go on the Polar Bear Express. While I’m happy I went, it is not a trip I would recommend. There was no observation car and nothing “touristy” except for a tired information centre at the other end. Luckily it was a nice day in Moosonee or the 3 hours before the trip back would have been a long wait. That being said, the rail staff were great especially when it came to handling my little dog (who cost extra and hated the 5-hour trip in the cargo car — no visitors allowed).

    It’s too bad. There is opportunity being missed both for the rail line and the residents of Moosonee. I’m hoping for better luck with the Agawa Canyon!

  2. Interesting views, I would love to see our Prime Minister and the Minister of Transportation act to see that passenger rail is enhanced and become a public right like our highways.

    Let’s face it the North will never enjoy four laneing highways, the terrain and the seasons say no. But citizens could enjoy safe, reliable, environmentally friendly passenger rail connectivity, the rail lines exist and could be upgraded for far less money than resurfacing roads, 4 laneing and bridge building. Even us in Northern Ontario and the northern area of other provinces could be included. With passenger rail service, small freight services could be included to help small business owners grow by using an option to ship goods that does not exist now.

  3. But any rail plan has to be shaken free of starry-eyed dreaming that is coloured by the distant past. A two- or three-car train passenger hauled by a cranky old Tier 0 diesel locomotive is not an environmental dividend. Trains are expensive and they have to be used strategically in concert with improved bus and air services, not to mention all-weather highways that also play an important role.

    As for small freight shipments, forget it. That’s something from the distant past and it doesn’t fit the current rail freight model. Freight and passenger trains require a critical mass to be efficient and effective. The key is substantial carload tonnage that can be easily moved by rail and can be shifted from trucking by charging all users the real cost of moving their goods.

    Trying to mix rail passenger service with the carriage of mail, express and less-than-carload freight rarely works. The exception is the Polar Bear. Elsewhere, no. Just ask former Amtrak president David Gunn about that and how he cut it out when he arrived on the railway because it was destroying Amtrak’s main objective, which is moving passengers efficiently and reliably without major delays.