On the evening of Thursday April 27th, 2023 the parliamentary rail caucus invited Transport Action Canada to a give a presentation and to discuss the current state of passenger rail in Canada. Caucus members took time out of their currently intensive schedules, with the House of Commons sitting until midnight for budget deliberations and many members also having to return to their ridings for weekend meetings with constituents, to attend this presentation. Transport Action is pleased by the recognition given to the importance of the issue.
The discussion started with an illustration that not so very long ago, communities across Canada were well connected by both rail and bus. Some of these lines that existed in 1990 are no longer even open for freight, creating bottlenecks that contribute to Canada’s supply chain vulnerabilities. For example, at Oshawa, both railways and Highway 401 run together in a corridor just 120 metres wide. Transport Action therefore believes there is a need to restore resilience, and that although network congestion is often visible as delayed passenger trains, passenger rail is not, or shouldn’t be, in conflict with freight. Therefore we suggested that public investments in infrastructure capacity should target win-win projects that restore fluidity.
Caucus members present represented communities across Canada as well as along the Quebec-Windsor corridor, so we began by discussing long distance and remote services. The presentation materials were provided to MPs in both English and French.
Transport Action Ontario board member Linda Savory-Gordon made the trip from Sault Ste. Marie to speak about the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban (Bear Train) in the Algoma region, which has been out of operation since federal funding was withdrawn in 2015. She pointed out the the decision was made by Transport Canada on the basis of satellite imagery appearing to show “roads” into the remote region, which are in fact logging roads, which are impassable for much of the year and in any case not open to the public. With Watco having taken over operation of the line from Canadian National, the Mask-wa Transportation Authority, led by the Missanabie Cree First Nation, will be preparing an updated business plan for the resumption of the service, which is expected to bring $38-48 million of economic benefits, including tourism in the region that inspired the Group of Seven artists, as well as restoring safe all-season access to lodges and lakes.
We started with the fact that most pressing issue facing VIA Rail is the age of its equipment for long distance and remote services, so we explained the current situation and the long lead time for ordering new equipment, urging progress on procurement. (The Request for Information was published the following day.)
We also expressed concern that over the past decade, these services have become less useful to passengers. Although tourist dollars help, these are fundamentally passenger trains for Canadians, so the loss of punctuality and extended running times imposed by CN have a serious impact on utility provided. This has also reduced equipment utilization, requiring a reduction in the frequency of the Canadian, increased staffing costs, and forced VIA to cease offering compensation for delays on these routes.
A large share of the cost of these services is fixed. Therefore transport Action believes that a more frequent and reliable service to more passengers is the route to better financial performance and greater socio-economic impact for public investment. We gave the example of cutting the Ocean service frequency in half in 2012, which drove away so many passengers that it didn’t save VIA much money, if any, while having a serious impact on people in the Maritimes.
We recognized the commitment by Canada and Quebec to reinstating the Chaleur to Gaspe, and started that we would like to see daily services restored, across Canada, with the fares kept affordable for Canadians.
Caucus chairperson Philip Lawrence MP (Northumberland – Peterborough South) and other members have heard from their constituents about the difficulties caused the the continued suspension of the first morning train to Toronto from both Kingston and London; and we thanked the members for speaking up about this. We suggested back in the fall of 2021, in a letter to Minister Omar Alghabra, that train #651 from Kingston be prioritised – but we recognize it could be hard for VIA deliver this under current constraints.
Initially, having been compelled to lay off most of its on-board service staff during the pandemic, VIA held off ramping up services until new crew had been trained – avoiding some of the problems the airlines caused themselves – but now this is largely due a shortage of operable equipment, including delays in the delivery of the new fleet. VIA Rail has only been able to restore about 80% of the service level operating in the corridor in 2019. Once the new fleet arrives and enters service, that will address some of the constraints.
We noted that journey times are also extended, and in some cases by enough to break connections. This isn’t a new problem, but it has gotten worse, particularly for travel through Toronto where VIA operates over Metrolinx trackage, and we discussed the need for the two public agencies to cooperate, including on the line between London and Kitchener. In southwestern Ontario, the government has made announcements about increasing services, and is investing $2M in a capacity study, but we expressed frustration that this question has been studied several times over. The bottlenecks are known, and would not be costly to triage.
CN’s route between Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, used by VIA, is the one of the busiest co-production corridors in North America, and the long-term solution the to the capacity constraints is new infrastructure. Reducing travel time between Toronto and Montreal back to what it was in the early 2000s might sound like the least we should expect, but to do so reliably at least every hour, rather than with one flagship non-stop train per day, would be a significant gain, and the travel time reductions to Ottawa and Quebec City are much larger. Reliability – not having to add an hour or so to your schedule to account for the risk of delay – would make the real-life time savings even greater.
We urged further increases in transparency, noting that Transport Action was initially skeptical of the HFR concept partly because – at the behest of Transport Canada – VIA was not allowed to share many technical and financial details. As some details became available, including an analysis of speeds achievable on the alignment through Havelock, and assurances about continued service to cities along the lakeshore, the viability of the project became more apparent, although a cost-benefit comparison with enhancements along the existing corridor has never been published.
We told caucus members that we had been pleased when the Joint Project Office (JPO) was formed in 2019 to advance the project and expected detailed consultations to follow. Instead, the cone of silence remained. Meanwhile, critical steps Transport Canada should have taken, like protecting land under consideration from conflicting developments, and ensuring the REM would keep its initial promise of sharing the Mount Royal Tunnel, were not taken. Now, a new tunnel from Central to Parc will be needed, at a cost to Canada at least $1.5bn.
In 2021, we were told the Impact Assessment process was about to start. Then it didn’t. A year later, a bombshell dropped: Rather than a straightforward design-build or availability-based P3 for the new infrastructure, the procurement was to include a 30+ year operating concession and revenue risk for the entire corridor, not just the new services. The start of procurement should have been cause for celebration, but instead VIA Rail and its staff were left facing an uncertain future.
A big change like this requires a big explanation, but even the summary comparison in the JPO report was redacted when it was finally released under Access to Information.
The private sector doesn’t take on risk, it prices risk or attempts to do so. Who knows what the population of Peterborough will grow to with a modern, hourly train service? A private partner will have no control over key factors that shape long-term demand – like immigration rates, zoning bylaws, and whether or not Ontario and Quebec introduce some form of road pricing in response to disappearing gas tax revenues. Meanwhile, the new procurement process pushes back the date shovels will finally hit the ground, and we have yet to see work start the “no regret” improvements ahead of HFR that were funded in budget 2021.
Transport Action highlighted the need for effective governance at VIA Rail, noting that when the government chose to replace Yves Desjardans-Sicilliano as CEO in 2019, they did so in the middle of the project for the new corridor fleet and the new reservation system, and took HFR out of the hands of the team that had been assembled at VIA to advance it.
The new CEO, Cynthia Garneau, appointed in 2019, therefore faced a significant turnover in senior roles and had only just settled in when the blockades and then the pandemic hit. The government has also left two seats on the board of directors vacant for an extended period, thus reducing the board’s ability to support to the CEO and management through this challenging period. Following Cynthia Garneau’s resignation, the government and has now had a year to appoint a new CEO.
We welcomed appointment of people with rail experience to the new VIA-HFR board and leadership, while cautioning that a separate Crown Corporation with a separate board and executive may be counterproductive, leading to a division of resources and talent.
Finally, we repeated two long-standing requests: A clear piece of enabling legislation that defines the mandate of VIA Rail and VIA-HFR and requires parliament to be consulted before withdrawing service on any routes, which has been brought forward as a private members bill over and again; and for the agreements and services standards between VIA and its host railways to be made public, with accountability for performance. Both of these steps would put VIA Rail in a stronger position to operate efficiently and reliably.
Photographed: Harry Gow, Linda Savory-Gordon, Gerald Soroka (Yellowhead, AB), Mel Arnold (North Okanagan—Shuswap, BC), Carol Hughes (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON), Philip Lawrence (Northumberland—Peterborough South, ON), Terence Johnson, Mike Morris (Kitchener Centre, ON), David Jeanes.
Also in attendance: Andréanne Larouche (Shefford, QC); Marilyn Gladu, (Sarnia – Lambton, ON).