Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to get railways back on track

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Canada's once-proud and efficient rail system is one sick iron horse. It will get sicker without serious intervention.

While the rail executives and politicians who oversee it will hotly deny the beast is ailing, there are four open wounds that prove it is.

First, there are the safety breaches, stretching from the July 6 derailment and explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, to CN's Jan. 7 accident near Plaster Rock, N.B. Both trains carried dangerous goods and passed through Toronto and Canada's most populous region heading east. Other derailments have concerns.

While rail is the safest means of moving freight, these accidents exposed long-simmering problems made worse by increasing traffic, such as the gusher of volatile western crude oil. Past Band-Aid solutions haven't brought railways to a level of technological sophistication that would prevent these accidents.

The second malady is line abandonment, which has raged like a fever since the 1970s. CP is ripping up its Ottawa Valley mainline and, as a result, sending western crude oil bound for eastern refineries through Toronto. Here, it meets the flow of crude and ethanol coming from the U.S. via Windsor. This makes the trip 250 kilometres longer, strains CP's busy southern Ontario network and increases the safety risks.

CN abandoned its Ottawa Valley line back in 1995 and has sent traffic for Montreal and points east through Toronto ever since. Its Toronto-Montreal line is busier than CP's, handling numerous Via passenger trains and all manner of freight, including U.S. crude oil entering Canada at Sarnia.

Today, another 975 km of track is slated for scrapping. This includes the original CN Maritime main line, which hosts the Montreal-Halifax Ocean passenger train. When the Plaster Rock derailment closed its primary Maritime freight artery, CN sent all Atlantic Canadian traffic, including crude oil, over this alternate route, proving its strategic value.

Next, there are the angry shippers, who are furious about across-the-board cost cutting driven by shareholder demands for higher dividends. This has undermined the rail industry's service and on-time performance. Western grain growers are screaming about CN and CP's failure to efficiently move their 2013 bumper crop, jeopardizing exports and food processing.

Finally, there is the accelerating deterioration of perpetually hobbled Via. In 2012, the publicly owned passenger carrier obtained government permission to trim frequency and de-staff stations -- the third cut since it was spawned in Parliament in 1977 with no clear legislative mandate or stable funding. At the same time, Via fumbled a $923-million capital renewal program, which was inadequate for the full rebuilding it has always needed.

Via's recently departed president called the train cuts and botched capital projects "right-sizing" and proof his team had "continued to develop a train culture in Canada." Rising costs, falling revenue and stagnant ridership prove otherwise. Via is suffocating

The causes of these rail-borne diseases are complex. So are the solutions. But Canada is not alone in having to come to terms with a railway system past its "best before" date.

For decades, the U.S. faced even worse. By the mid-1970s, a quarter of the U.S. system was bankrupt thanks to corporate greed, subsidized road, marine and air competition plus government indifference. Safety was in the ditch, lines were being scrapped. The publicly owned passenger system was struggling under inadequate investment and congressional hostility.

The U.S. turnaround was slow, difficult and expensive. It's far from complete. But solid progress has been made, much of it involving public investment and increased oversight. The key was the combined will of enlightened railroaders and politicians, who realized the railways must be nurtured back to health if the U.S. was to compete economically, environmentally and socially with other nations that invest in rail.

That penny hasn't dropped in Canada. Rail executives and politicians have issued soothing statements but taken little action. There's been no admission that fundamental questions about our rail system must be answered.

If Canada fails to deal with this illness, we will pay a steep price. No major nation can compete globally without an efficient rail system.

To turn our rail system into the thoroughbred it must become, we need a blueprint that balances public and private interests. The first step must be the long-overdue public debate leading to the production of a national rail policy. With our railways traditionally regulated by Ottawa, that puts the ball in Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt's court. So, dear minister, let the debate -- and the rail recovery -- begin.


Greg Gormick is a Toronto transportation writer and the author of the recent municipally commissioned report, Revitalizing New Brunswick's Rail Sector. His clients have included CP, CN, Via and numerous public agencies.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2014 0

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