A sure sign Canada’s rail passenger service is near death slunk into Winnipeg last Monday — 15 hours late. For the first time since March 12, Via Rail’s Canadian arrived from Vancouver.
It was really only a half-Canadian. It short-turned and went back west the next evening rather than continuing on to Toronto. The Canadian will do this once weekly until further notice, although the Winnipeg-Toronto run may return in the spring as a twice-weekly train.
The once-grand Canadian has been problematic for years: overpriced, worn, unreliable and slow. When it ran daily before the Mulroney government hacked off half of Via Rail in January 1990, it took the scenic and populous CP route around the Lake Superior North Shore, across the southern prairies and through Banff.
But it has been eroded by the government-ordered change to the less scenic and populous CN route in 1990, several frequency reductions and the post-privatization asset stripping by CN, which shed track, trains and employees to boost dividends.
CN can no longer get Via Rail’s Canadian over its transcontinental line reliably because of its own snarl of slow-moving, over-length freight trains. These monsters won’t fit into most of the sidings, so they often block the Canadian — as one did before its departure from Vancouver on March 11. They often run so late their crews run out of hours and the trains die in their tracks, tying up the main line.
Ottawa does nothing. Ask for an explanation and you’ll receive a boilerplate response from Minister of Transport Marc Garneau: "Via is an arm’s-length Crown corporation that makes it decisions based on the needs of modern travellers and the funding provided by Parliament."
But more deadly than these visible signs of Via Rail’s imminent death was an action taken in Ottawa on Nov. 30. That’s when an aviation industry bailout package of $788 million (with more to follow) was unfurled by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. It landed, she said, because "Canada is a vast country, and we rely more on air travel than others. Carriers have cut routes during the pandemic, leaving Canadians in certain communities with limited mobility and limited access to essential goods and services."
Those prop-up funds will hasten the death of competing Via Rail, which serves far more towns than the entire for-profit air system. In Freeland’s budget, there was $188 million to slightly paper over the damage the pandemic has done to the more expansive Via Rail system, which is currently just an infrequent shadow of its pre-pandemic self. Even a railway that has largely been mothballed will burn up that Ottawa Band-Aid in a few weeks.
One wonders how this sits with Canadians in Longlac, Ont., Biggar, Sask., and Ashcroft, B.C. — all without air service. At their expense (and that of every other Canadian on or off the air grid), the airlines just got another free meal ladled out from the same trough first filled in 1935 by Liberal minister of transport C.D. Howe.
Desperate for an aviation toy of his own to compete in a bragging contest with other nations, he quashed the CP/CN plan to co-operatively create one airline co-ordinated with their far-flung rail and steamship services. The public cash flow started then. It has never stopped.
As a result, Canadian mobility and access have been nosediving for decades, aided and abetted by unbridled provincial spending on highways. Both of the other modes got fed by successive streams of vote-hungry federal and provincial politicians, largely because they generate oodles of jobs that can be converted to votes come election season.
Never mind that most of those jobs depend on public subsidies, direct and indirect, and many of the functions could have been better filled by a modernized rail system at a lower cost.
Our global competitors are boosting rail investment in their post-pandemic budgets, but Canada has missed a chance to rebalance our out-of-whack system and insert a degree of fairness. How many in Ottawa even know that Via Rail’s anemic Canadian last week served 25 communities as it wended its way from Winnipeg to Vancouver for the first time in nine months. Resuming the run to Toronto would add 42, few of them air- or bus-served.
This devolution of a century-long national dream into a 21st-century national tragedy contains a subliminal message: if you don’t live in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal Triangle, you don’t count.
This could be easily corrected by affordably and swiftly rebuilding our rail passenger service with off-the-shelf technology, much of it Canadian-designed and built. But will it?
Greg Gormick is a nationally-known rail analyst and policy adviser, whose clients have included VIA, CP, CN and elected officials of four political parties. He is the author of the forthcoming book, A National Dream Reborn? – The Life, Near-Death and Future of Canada’s Passenger Trains.