Bring VIA Rail Back to the North Shore
(excerpts from a speech made in parliament, Wednesday, June 17th, 2015)
VIA Rail is dying in the hands of the government. The results contained in VIA’s annual report are abysmal. By virtually every measure, VIA is continuing a nose-down descent. Revenue is up slightly, but operating loss is climbing faster. Ridership, cost recovery and on-time performances are all dropping dangerously, but for many reasons they could be fixed, if we cared, if we chose to.
Canada is alone among the G8 nations in having no national transportation policy or strategy. We have cobbled together a hodgepodge of policies that lack coherence. When we expand our highway system, it is always called a critical investment. When we talk about passenger rail and the need for investment in that critical infrastructure, it is described as an endless subsidy.
Canadian innovators in modern rail, like Bombardier, sell their fast and efficient trains to other nations, while our passenger rail system continues to decline and decay. For example, VIA’s program to rebuild the 30-plus Euro cars that are the backbone of VIA’s Quebec-Windsor corridor operation, was slated to cost about $99 billion with completion in 2013. This is 2015. Tonnage costs have nearly doubled, and now will not wrap up until 2017.
Canada’s passenger rail service has no legislative framework. VIA is crippled by inadequate investment and a lack of enlightened national rail policy favouring more, not less service.
The government is failing to improve our publicly owned passenger trains at a time when other nations are modernizing and expanding their systems. The Conservatives are deliberately starving VIA and are not giving it the modern tools to turn itself around as the U.S.A. Congress has given to Amtrak.
The government claims to be business savvy, but I see zero business smarts at work in their mismanagement of VIA. I observe waste and decay at the expense of Canadian taxpayers dollars or phony excuses about how VIA is supposedly, allegedly an arm’s-length Crown corporation that makes its own decisions.
In 2012, the government cut $41 million from VIA’s annual operation. The Canadian, the country’s only cross-country route, was cut from three trains a week to only two from October to April of each year. The Ocean, VIA’s Montreal to Halifax route, was reduced from six times weekly to only three at that time, cutting VIA service to Atlantic Canada in half.
The cancellation of half the VIA route network and the abysmal treatment of our national rail passenger service can be brought down to one overarching problem: the total absence of a logical visionary passenger rail policy for Canada.
The fate of Canada’s rail passenger system is hanging in the balance today. Misunderstood, underfunded and seemingly without a powerful champion in Ottawa, other than me, VIA still represents an important national resource and can and should be put on a firm footing that it has always required. However, time is growing short. If we lose what remains of our rail passenger system, we will stand alone among the G8, among the G20 group of nations.
There are two no-cost steps that could kickstart VIA’s revival. The first is legislation, like that introduced by a private member from the NDP recently and voted down by the Conservatives, to establish VIA’s mandate, rights, obligations and relationship with the exorbitant user RRIFs freight railways.
VIA has never had such legislation. This has always been at the heart of Amtrak’s survival and success in the U.S.A., and so as I finish, the other way to get VIA back on track without spending serious public dollars is by filling the two vacancies on VIA’s board with people who actually understand VIA and care.
Will the minister please consider appointing former Amtrak president and Cape Breton resident, David Dunn to our Canadian VIA board.
Mr. Speaker, VIA needs a responsible government which leads and cares about effective passenger rail, as well as some board members who have knowledge, experience and informed passion for actually improving, not killing, privatizing, or declining passenger rail.
I fully supported the excellent VIA Rail Canada act tabled earlier this year by the NDP MP for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. It dealt with the necessity of passenger priority over freight, the reduction of the outrageous track use charges to VIA by CP Rail and CN Rail and called for a basic national network alterable only by Parliament, not just the Prime Minister.
Now it is time to get VIA back on track in a new way. VIA’s board needs former Amtrak President David Gunn, a man who has real world railway experience and has the ability to actually save VIA.