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Trains: Untapped Potential

VIA Rail says train popularity is down, others argue railway travel in Canada could be so much more

by Rebecca Hsu

A Montreal-Halifax Ocean line Via Rail train (photo by abdallahh, Flickr).
A Montreal-Halifax Ocean line Via Rail train (photo by abdallahh, Flickr).

Even in the face of recent VIA Rail service cuts, Marcus Garnet is hopeful. “Statistics in the US are showing that the younger generation are not as interested in car ownership than our Generation X,” says the vice president of Transport Action Atlantic. “It’s the footloose freedom, two feet and your iPhone, instead of lugging around a ton of metal.”

He is also frustrated. The passenger rail system is at a crossroads. With air travel competing for passenger revenues in long-distance transportation, the Canadian rail system must decide whether it will lumber on with a business as usual mindset, or if it will tap into the potential that Garnet and others see in it.  

It seems that for the time being, it is still business as usual. On June 27, VIA Rail announced its schedule changes for the Ocean line, which connects Montreal to Halifax. In an email addressing its reasons for cutting the year-round service to three days a week from six VIA Rail states, “For any business to be successful, it must match service to market demand.”

Garnet is not convinced. “We have at least three ridership peak periods that are fairly long every year, but we’re still going to have this downsized, three days/week service when the demands are high.”

Transport Action isn’t alone in pointing out an increase in demand for the Ocean’s services. VIA Rail’s own annual report from 2011 indicates an increase in both profit and ridership. Passenger revenues from the Ocean service alone have gone up from $12,973,000 in 2010 to $13,983,000 in 2011. The number of passengers using the VIA Rail Ocean service also increased from 127,000 in 2010 to 134,000 in 2011.

Contradicting its numbers, VIA Rail writes in an email to the Halifax Media Co-op, “On the Ocean, the demand has declined by 50% in last 15 years. Other transportation options have evolved in this region; better highways and air service are changing this market.”

In spite of VIA Rail’s claim, Nancy Risser, a VIA Rail employee and a member of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, says “We’ve actually had to refuse people service in recent weeks because we’ve been sold out.”

At the heart of this incongruity is the suspicion that passenger train services in Atlantic Canada are being neglected by bureaucrats and VIA Rail management. “I think a lot of these decisions are being made by people in Montreal that don’t understand the Maritimes and what we need,” says Garnet.

More Losers than Winners

The challenges presented by the cuts extend to issues in accessibility. The Ocean connects Atlantic Canada’s largest metropolis to Montreal, but it also services passengers in small towns with fewer long-distance transportation options.

“The buses and the intercity motor coaches are less and less willing to get off the highway and pick people up. When they do, they stop by a gas station and don’t go into towns anymore,” says Garnet “The beauty of VIA service is that it takes you to town centres without deviating from the route. It can help provide vitality in the downtown areas especially if the service were improved.”

Recent cuts undermine transportation accessibility for smaller towns such as Jacquet River, Petit-Rocher, Rogersville, Amherst and Springhill Junction, to name a few.

“I don’t think they realize that people who need it most – people staying at the IWK from Truro, or Amherst, for example – are relying on the service,” says Risser.

And it’s not just passengers who lose out. VIA Rail jobs are being threatened by the cuts. Risser is worried. “Everybody gets bumped. Me with 13 years of service, I’ll lose my job. It will affect a lot of people.”

VIA Rail said that it has cut 9% of its management positions in response to budget pressures. The National Union of Public and General Employees estimates that 200 CAW members and rail workers will be out of jobs as a result of service cuts and reduced government funding.

Untapped Potential in Passenger Rail

At a time when all other G20 countries are investing in passenger rail, Canada is cutting back, according to Transport Action.

China spent $80 billion on high-speed rail, said Bombardier Inc.’s president George Haynal at a March 2009 Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities parliament session. The United States is also considering improvements to its passenger rail system, investing $8 billion in the initial stages of introducing ten high-speed rail corridors. At the session, Haynal warned that there is the risk of Canada “falling behind.”

Garnet believes that this repressed potential for passenger rail is due to ideology. “[T]he people who make these decisions mostly drive or fly. When you fly and drive, you don’t even think of these small places; you don’t see the place, you don’t see the people.”

Dr. Wayne Groszko, the Renewable Energy Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, offers Europe as an example of how the Canadian passenger rail system can re-establish a balance with other means of transportation to improve its service. “We have a highway system that is publicly organized and funded, and a railway system that operates on a private, for-profit basis, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect those systems to work fairly and in balance with each other. If they’re either both publicly organized and funded, which is the case in Europe, or if the highways were privatized, either case will bring more balance into the costs and benefits of transportation.”

In addition to the possibilities for improved and efficient services for passengers, our railways also offer potential for advancing sustainable transportation in Canada. “The problem of abandoning – which is what the feds have done – the public interest in railways is that railways have major environmental benefits: smaller footprint in terms of infrastructure, width; smaller impact on the environment in terms of track maintenance; lower greenhouse gas emission per passenger or freight — all kinds of benefits. Those have been ignored by governments for several decades,” says Groszko.

Investing in our railways could mean the shift from diesel fuel to electricity — a positive step towards environmentally sustainable transportation, adds Grozsko. Nova Scotia has the capacity to lead the way in this regard.

The possibility of high-speed rail in Canada has also been considered, with the population-dense rail corridors between Quebec and Windsor, and between Calgary and Edmonton, at the centre of this vision.

Given all these possibilities, why is our rail system stalling? Groszko says, “It’s a question of vision.”

*****

Simply put, Groszko and Garnet prefer to travel by train.  

“Everything else aside, it’s also my favourite way to travel. The reason is the social element of it,” says Groszko, who just completed a rail trip from Toronto to Edmonton. He says he always meets new people and learns interesting things sitting in a lounge car, watching Canada go by. “There is no travel experience that can beat long-distance train travel in my experience. That’s worth thinking about,” he says.

To Garnet, trains mean even more. “For me the train symbolizes, most of all, Canada. I’m originally from England. Every time I take the train I fall in love with Canada all over again. I see all the beautiful wildernesses between places. The people that fly and drive miss a lot of them. There’s a strong emotional aspect to it. Yes, you can call me romantic, but what the heck is wrong with that? The car manufacturers all know that romanticism is important. How is it that when we talk about trains we aren’t allowed to talk about romance? When the last transcontinental train runs through this country, a piece of Canada’s heart will be gone.” 

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