In an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday October 20, 2023, VIA Rail’s President and CEO Mario Péloquin called upon the federal government to provide passenger trains with right of way over freight trains and to advance passenger rights legislation for rail passengers, backed by responsibilities for both VIA Rail and its host railways.
For decades, VIA Rail’s only avenue to address delays attributable to its host railways has been to lengthen schedules, which sharply increases operating costs, reduces the number of frequencies VIA can operate with its equipment, and makes rail travel less attractive to passengers. Even with padded schedules, on time performance for Quebec-Windsor corridor services has been stuck at around 70%. VIA Rail provides travel credits for delays of more than an hour in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, and refunds have been provided after severe disruptions. However, compensation for delays on other routes was discontinued in 2015, and VIA has to caution its long-distance passengers not to make any firm plans for their anticipated day of arrival.
Mario Péloquin recognized that the situation is unacceptable:
“Now, we have no class, no prioritization. There was talk about putting rules in place prioritizing passenger rail trains. I would love that, together with a bill of rights for passengers similar to what we see in the airline industry, as imperfect maybe as it is. All we can commit right now without those rules is that we’ll get people where they want to go — eventually.”
Transport Action has supported the many past private members’ bills for a VIA Rail Canada Act that would have given the crown corporation a clearly defined mandate, responsibilities, and rights, and we have called for a Fair Rail for Passengers Act that would also include priority for passenger trains.
We believe such legislation should provide for:
Freight industry spokespeople have already cautioned that passenger priority could come at the expense of rail freight fluidity, but Transport Action does not believe this to be accurate. Such legislation must clearly be backed by strategic investments to improve the existing rail network and relieve bottlenecks to ensure that freight is not impeded by the regulatory changes.
It is unlikely that any sustained improvement in passenger rail performance could be delivered without addressing bottlenecks, renewing critical infrastructure like the New Westminster Rail Bridge, and ensuring a good state of repair, also delivering a noticeable improvement in freight car and container velocity that attracts more freight to the rails and improves Canada’s supply chain competitiveness.
Furthermore, while Canadian National is VIA Rail’s main host railway, it would be unfair to lay blame for poor performance solely at their feet. Metrolinx is capable of indifference to the experience of VIA passengers, including recently imposing delays of several hours on Sarnia-bound trains. Decades of underinvestment have also left VIA Rail with an aging long-distance fleet which urgently needs renewal, and a legacy corridor fleet that is struggling with reliability issues while awaiting the delivery of the new Venture trains. Nor is the problem unique to VIA Rail: Amtrak’s difficulties throughout the summer with trackage between Montreal and the border further serve to demonstrate that the urgent need to reform Canada’s railway regulations.
Regulatory certainty regarding passenger priority is also a precondition for the High Frequency Rail project to succeed. Although constructing dedicated tracks will vastly reduce contention between freight and passenger operations in the corridor, the new services will have to use shared trackage at certain points in their journey, and so anything less than excellence would merely propagate delays along the new dedicated trackage too. The federal government also plans to outsource operations, including making the private partner for High Frequency Rail responsible operating VIA Rail’s existing corridor services, which run largely on shared trackage. To take this on under current conditions would be replete with commercial and reputational risks for the prospective partners.
Note: In the United States, Amtrak has legislated priority, but it is rarely fully enforced. Regular report cards document host railway and per-route performance. Example: https://media.amtrak.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Host-Railroad-Report-Card-2021-Final-v2.pdf