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Why in Canada do we live in a cultural abyss when it comes to having a modern passenger rail service?
I was trying to remember when I last had hope that Canada would modernize its passenger rail service and join the rest of the world.

In 2000, I was excited when VIA Rail purchased 139 of the Alstom-built Nightstar passenger rail cars.1 These were originally built for an overnight train service between the UK and the mainland. Pro-rail federal Transport Minister David Collenette announced the “Renaissance (the new name for Nightstar equipment) of Passenger Rail in Canada,” which represented a $402 million influx of money for VIA.

In my community it meant the addition of a second morning train into Toronto and the refurbishment of the historic railway station in Kitchener.

Around 2002 VIA also announced it was purchasing a new General Electric Locomotive for its fleet. I went to the press conference in Toronto that was promoting the new locomotives.

Sadly, the Renaissance funding was short-lived. The new Liberal government, under anti-passenger rail Prime Minister Paul Martin, slashed further funding to the Renaissance thereby ending the dreams of passenger rail renewal.

Not since 1967 when the Turbo Train was introduced by Canadian National Railways has there been excitement about what modern passenger rail service could be. Listening to the original press conference from 1967 you get a real sense that Canadian National wanted modern passenger rail to be part of Canada’s future. 2

Because the Turbo Trains were not tested in Canadian winter climates, the Turbo ran into problems. Ironically, in 2002 the Nightstar Equipment ran into the same type of problems as the trains were not designed for harsh winter weather.

Nonetheless, the Turbo Train holds the record for the fastest passenger train in Canada. It went over 226kph. By 1982 the trains were running well, but VIA Rail, now the owner of them, decided to eliminate them from service. None of these trains were saved.

It can be persuasively argued that the demise of passenger rail in Canada is directly related to three fundamental issues.

1. Lack of Passenger Rail Legislation– VIA Rail has no legislation to support its existence. VIA was created with a simple Standing Order in Council.

Outgoing Minister of Transport David Collenette failed in his attempt to get a VIA Rail Act, Bill C-26, passed. In 2003 it received only first reading in parliament. In March 2014, MP Olivia Chow tabled a private members Bill C-577 - An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and this bill makes consequential amendments to another Act. 3 Because the current government of Prime Minister Harper has a majority government, and MP Chow has decided to run for municipal politics, this Bill has little chance of passing.

2. Privatization of Canadian National Railway – Passenger rail in Canada suffered serious setbacks when Canadian National was privatized. There were no provisions or legislation put in place to ensure that passenger rail was given priority on freight lines and CN was not held accountable for the quality of service they provide to VIA Rail and associated costs.

As far back as 1984, VIA Rail President Frank Roberts argued that over $100 million was being overcharged by CN and CP. 4

Recent revelations from a former CN supervisor about how CN overbilled GO Transit point to serious problems with accountability around how CN spends taxpayers’ money. 5 Is it time for VIA Rail to comprehensively audit how government money is being spent by CN?

3. Lack of Political Vision – There has been a consistent lack of vision for passenger rail in Canada for at least three decades. It hasn’t mattered who was in power. The Trudeau Liberals in 1981 cut VIA Rail by 20%. The Mulroney Conservatives in 1989 put the knife in VIA Rail further by cutting routes by 50%.6
The present situation is certainly grim as the majority Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no vision at all for passenger rail in Canada. How bad is it? In 2011 then Conservative Minister of Transport Steven Fletcher met with the president of tour train operator Rocky Mountaineer. This was one of many meetings between Rocky Mountaineer and the government. Is this Harper’s vision for a modern passenger rail system in Canada - tourist trains?! 7

VIA Rail’s cuts to routes and diminished funding by the Harper government in 2013 and 2014 have further jeopardized the future of VIA Rail.


With this present political situation it is hard to imagine any high speed rail (HSR) projects moving forward in Canada. When I started High Speed Rail Canada, ( my idea was simple. It was too find all the previous high speed rail studies related to Canada and put them on one website for people to access.

In the Ontario-Quebec Corridor there have been about 12 HSR studies done over the years. All of the studies have not been acted on. There is still one unreleased study paid for by the Mayors along the line in conjunction with French rail operator SNCF. 8

The present “death by studies” phenomenon in Ontario-Quebec towards HSR has even become the subject of a parody by Rick Mercer (


Tragically Alberta has had no passenger rail between Lethbridge-Calgary-Red Deer-Edmonton- Fort McMurray.
Passenger rail service using Rail Diesel Cars (RDC) stopped in 1987 between Edmonton and Calgary. Since then there have been two major studies (2004 & 2009) on the concept of having high speed trains between Calgary and Edmonton.
A private enterprise Alberta High Speed Rail has been interested for over a decade in seeing the project move forward.

In February 2014, the Alberta provincial government held a public hearing on the idea of having high speed rail between Calgary and Edmonton. The completed report did not recommend building high speed rail but securing rights of way.
The Mayors of Calgary and Edmonton want money prioritized for inner city light rail transit instead of intercity rail travel. This poses a significant drawback to the introduction of high speed rail in Alberta.

A more logical approach to returning passenger rail to Alberta would have been to say, “We have no passenger rail between our cities, how can we correct this problem?” Popular opinion polls have constantly stated that Albertans would like to see passenger rail return to their province. How we can get there should have included more options than just true high speed rail.

Sadly there are archaic suggestions being put out that simply building more roads is the answer. I wish Albertans could come and do a morning commute into Toronto to see how bad an idea that is and how costly it is to society. Recent studies conclude that gridlock costs Toronto up to $11 billion annually. Somehow the 18 lanes of highway entering Toronto are not solving the problem. 9

What can the average Canadian do to promote the introduction and/or improvement of passenger rail in their community?

First of all you must get involved in the political process and elect members at all levels who are pro-rail transit. We must not support parties whose leaders have a proven track record of not supporting passenger rail. National passenger rail projects require federal funding.

Secondly you must educate yourself on the topic. People who espouse that government should not be involved in passenger rail because it is not profitable need to understand the true costs of being an auto-dependent society.

Finally, stand up for what you believe in, write a letter, attend meetings, join advocacy groups. It is time for our Canadian government to support passenger rail in Canada.

Paul Langan, Founder High Speed Rail Canada

This article originally appeared in the Watershed Magazine -

Endnotes 1. VIA Rail Renaissance Cars Promotional Video
2.Turbo Train Press Conference
3.Private Members Bill
4. VIA Rail – Christopher Greenlaw, pg104
5.GO Transit Audit sparked by claims CN overbilled taxpayers
6.UNIFOR – Getting on-board or running off the rails - November 2013 7.Tories Mull Privatizing VIA Rail
8.Board of Control City of London
9.EXCLUSIVE: Gridlock is costing Toronto up to $11 billion yearly—here’s how to fix it