Hughes: Prioritizing trains and rail travel

This time last year, one of the big news stories coming out of the back end of the holiday season was the severe travel delays across Canadian airports. Thankfully, air travel was markedly more consistent this holiday season, and most travellers managed to evade any serious delays. However, the other major federally regulated travel industry, rail, remains plagued with poor on-time performance, with frequent delays causing headaches for travellers. However, with one simple legislative change, rail travel could become far more consistent for travellers across the country.

Taylor Bachrach, the MP for the Skeena – Bulkley Valley riding in British Columbia, recently tabled Bill C-371, An Act to amend the Canada Transportation Act (passenger rail service). The bill is quite simple: It would amend the Canada Transportation Act to give passenger trains priority over freight trains if there is a conflict in travel itinerary and impose fines of up to $250,000 for those companies who are not in compliance.

Rail travel hasn’t had the best few years. Via Rail Canada, the Crown Corporation responsible for travel across the country, had indicated that only 57 percent of their trains were considered to be on time in 2022, compared to 72 percent in 2021, and 73.4 percent averaged out since 2011. Part of the reason for this is that VIA Rail owns very little rail infrastructure, only about three percent of the rail lines it uses, and therefore must negotiate deals with rail owners like Metrolinx, CN and CP to utilize their rail lines.

While there will certainly be some push-back from freight companies that may need to give way to passengers, there is precedence for this type of regulation. The United States has had laws on the books for some 50 years already that allows Amtrak passenger trains to have priority over freight. And while Amtrak’s on-time records are marginally better than VIA Rail’s, the issue in the U.S. seems to stem mostly from the lack of enforcement from the Department of Justice, which is the only body able to enforce Amtrak’s priority laws.

Bachrach, for his part, wasn’t content to just table Bill C-371. On Dec. 17, following the end of the fall parliamentary session, he decided to travel by train from Toronto to his constituency in Smithers, BC, a 4,500-km ride. While Bachrach made it to his destination only 20 minutes behind schedule, he did note that his trains had to pull over dozens of times over the course of the trip to allow freight trains to pass through. He also noted that the entire trip lasted about a day longer than a similar trip would have 50 years ago, and that some of the trains he was in were clearly nearing the end of their life cycles, such as the one on the last leg of his trip that was put into service in the 1950s.

His is a good news story, but rail travel isn’t always this smooth. Dedicated passenger lines would obviously be ideal for travellers across the country, but that would require significant investments in rail infrastructure. The government is engaged in ongoing consultations about a dedicated passenger line between Quebec City and Toronto, but that line wouldn’t be completed until, at best, midway through the 2030s. It wouldn’t help those of us in Northern Ontario, who are well aware of the challenges accessing rail lines. Of the 11 layover stops scheduled on Via Rails’ The Canadian line (which spans from Toronto to Vancouver), three of them, including Hornepayne, do not have an indoor facility open to the public to wait for their next train.

A lot of Canadians want a reliable, safe, and affordable mode of public transportation, but aren’t willing to gamble on a 43 per cent chance to arrive late, given VIA Rail’s 2022 on-time average. Ensuring passenger cars are given priority would help alleviate those concerns.