VIA Rail Canada at 40: Four decades of cuts, heartbreak and lost opportunities

Forty years ago this Monday (October 29), VIA Rail Canada was born as an operating railway when it assumed the operation of The Canadian, the Super Continentaland the other remaining Western Canadian passenger trains from Canadian Pacific (CP) and Canadian National (CN).

“The sad reality is the high hopes of the Canadian public and the railroaders who diligently maintained those trains were dashed almost at the outset,” says Chris West, founder of the All Aboard St. Marys citizens’ rail action committee.  “Those not privy to what was going on behind the scenes in Ottawa were totally misled.  We were told by politicians and bureaucrats this was the start of a rail renaissance.

“In fact, it was just a method for cutting the partial and totally inadequate 80% subsidy to CP and CN to run the service-worn trains they were compelled to operate in the face of massive subsidies to air and highway travel.  VIA was just a mechanism to kill our passenger trains, dressed in Ottawa doublespeak.”

The first of a long line of cuts occurred on the very day VIA took over the western trains from CP and CN when pieces of the CP Canadianand CN Super Continentalroutes were immediately dropped under what Ottawa lightly dismissed as “rationalization.”  It was a preview of further and even larger cuts that would occur in 1981 under the Trudeau Liberals and in 1990 under the Mulroney Conservatives, both of which had previously made grand election promises of VIA investment, renewal and service expansion.

More major budgetary and service cuts were made by other governments in 1995, 2002 and 2012.  Three VIA routes – Montreal-Gaspe, Winnipeg-Churchill and Victoria-Courtenay – are now partially or totally suspended because the feds have done little to assist in the rehabilitation of the infrastructure on which VIA’s trains depend.  These three routes are now unsafe and impassable by all trains.

Says Éric Boutilier, founder of All Aboard Northern Ontario, “Parts of Canada have always been hit harder than others. Northern Ontario and Quebec, Atlantic Canada and the West have seen their services cut to the point of irrelevancy. On Halloween, every Greyhound bus route west of Sudbury will meet the same fate as those vanished VIA trains.  Canadians are being immobilized to the point where we are unable to even travel and communicate with each other.  It’s becoming a race to the bottom.”

Nationally-known rail analyst and policy adviser Greg Gormick, who serves as an adviser to both All Aboard committees, has had a ringside seat for this decades-long tale of the passenger train’s decline at the hands of every federal government, except Prime Minister Joe Clark’s.  A fourth-generation member of Canada’s rail industry, his clients have included VIA, CP, CN and elected officials of all political stripes.

“If VIA wasn’t set up to fail, it was born to have nothing but trouble,” says Gormick.  “That was the view of the late Garth Campbell, VIA’s first marketing vice-president and a visionary who helped craft CN’s successful revival of its passenger business in the 1960s.  It was all pulled apart on orders from Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats, some of whom I knew and who were proud of their destructive work.

“Despite the waste, damage and heartbreak of more than 40 years, it’s not too late to reverse Canada’s admittedly depressing rail passenger track record.  But we’re on the brink of collapse, despite the ‘sunny ways, sunny days’ bafflegab we repeatedly get from Ottawa and VIA’s political appointees. They offer empty promises of new trains and the rebuilding of an abandoned line through Eastern Ontario’s backwoods that would miss major markets such as Oshawa, Belleville, Kingston and Cornwall.”

Both All Aboard committees have commissioned Gormick to draft plans for the serious overhaul and cost-effective expansion of rail passenger service in Northeastern and Southwestern Ontario.These first two plans will draw on the SouthwestLynx plan he produced earlier this year for Oxford County.

“The Lynx approach is the way to begin undoing the politically-driven damage inflicted on our publicly-funded passenger trains for far too long,” says West.  “It draws on the techniques and technologies employed on a long list of successful U.S. intercity rail routes.  If it works there, it can work here – and at an affordable public cost that will generate impressive ridership, revenue and economic spinoff.”

The first plan will be NortheastLynx for the Ontario Northland’s Toronto-North Bay-Cochrane route, which was cut by the provincial Liberals in 2012 and previously damaged by VIA’s 1990 cuts. This will be followed by the Lynx plan for the Toronto-Kitchener-St. Marys-London Innovation Corridor.

Says Boutilier, “Canada’s failed rail passenger policies have reduced us to Third World status in terms of access and mobility – and at great public expense.  We will pay an increasingly high price for this in terms of economic, social and environmental vibrancy.  Implementing Greg’s Lynx plans, we will accelerate our fight for what every globally-competitive nation already enjoys:  a modern, affordable and truly national rail passenger service.”

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One comment

  1. Via rail needs to put the canadian back on cp rail main line.the liberal transportation minister need to go.befor the prime minister got elected I spock to him in brandon.andsaid the people in southern canada has a right to take the not just for northern canada.their more people in the south.that where the money is and that better for via and the government.he said he keep it in mind.he done nothing.cp rail has better record servicing Amtrak in the states then cn.i think the CEO of CIA needs to do somthing allso.or let someone else run via