Skip to main content

Can David Collenette Save High Speed Rail and VIA RAIL in Ontario?

Daivd Collenette
David Collenette

Only twice have Canada’s passenger trains caught half a break from any government.  To find the reasons why, you have to examine the high-level personalities involved on those two occasions.

The most recent opportunity was created when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – an admitted rail passenger buff and regular user – swung nearly $1 billion to VIA.  Sadly, VIA frittered this away – with the uniformed consent of the government that awarded the capital infusion – and let CN hoover up most of those public funds, souring any chance of fuller funding by the Harper government.

However, the first time VIA was given a fair shake was under Transport Minister David Collenette.  He was born in London and spent his first 10 years near Marylebone Station, where he befriended the railroaders and was rewarded with “footplate rides” on the steam engines shuttling back and forth to the loco shed.  When he arrived in Toronto in 1957, his family lived near Danforth and Broadview, giving him the opportunity to hang out on the Prince Edward Viaduct after school and watch the CP and CN trains in the Don Valley below, as well as admire the pairs of TTC multiple unit “trams” zooming by at street level.

By his own admission, Collenette has always liked passenger trains and believed they could play a greater role in Canada, if given half a chance.  He got the opportunity to help make that happen in 1997 when he took over the transport portfolio in the Jean Chretien government following the not-so-VIA-friendly work of Doug Young and David Anderson.  One result was $500 million in capital funding to VIA when it was on its knees financially due to the budget slashing of his predecessors and former bus line owner Paul Martin, then serving as minister of finance.  Had the government not changed from Chretien to Martin in 2003, Collenette might have set us on the road to high-speed (or at least higher-speed) passenger service with the logical VIAFast plan, which he set up for full funding.  Martin killed it and took back some of VIA’s approved funding.

Today, it’s got to be viewed as a blessing that Collenette has been appointed by Premier Kathleen Wynne to oversee the study of the HSR plan brought forward by former provincial Minister of Transportation Glen Murray.  If improved rail passenger service for Southwestern Ontario is ever going to get a fair shake, it’s under Collenette’s supportive guidance.

To say that the provincial HSR proposal brought forward by Glen Murray just before the 2014 provincial election raised some professional eyebrows is an understatement.  First, it brought forth justified statements along the lines of, “Here we go again.”  When you’ve been led on by the HSR promise of so many politicians on so many occasions in the past, becoming jaded is understandable.

Worse was the quality of this “pre-feasibility study” and the naïve assumptions it contained.  Any report that suggests the way to get around physical impediments is by “wiggling the track” gets all the professional brickbats it deserves.
Backed into its own corner by its too-quick promotion of this half-baked proposal at election time, the premier bought herself some credibility by hiring Collenette.  He’s politically savvy and he has a good grasp of the realities of rail passenger service, high-speed or other.  He’s not apt to make ridiculous cases just because he likes trains.

So, now we’ve got him on course to deliver a series of recommendations to the premier by November.  He’s the first to admit there are challenges to overcome.  Enumerating them here is not necessary, but it’s a long list of practical issues that will have to be addressed.  My conversations with him convince me that these issues are being analyzed.

I have to admit that my eyes glaze over whenever I hear a pol embrace HSR and predict its delivery, fully formed as our equivalent of the French TGV’s and Japanese Shinkansens, will be a snap.  Been there, heard that.

I was, therefore, suitably impressed when the members of the team working with Collenette told the audiences at the information sessions they conducted throughout Southwestern Ontario that they were considering three technological options:  300-km/h electric service, 200-km/h electric and 200-km/h diesel.

Also admirable was Collenette’s comment that the service on the existing VIA routes could not and should not be abandoned.  He believes the maintenance of service on the existing lines as feeders to any new HSR system is imperative.

But we should be forewarned that comes of this exercise will not be a decision of Collenette’s making.  It will fall to the premier and her cabinet.  If they muff this opportunity to at least deliver faster and more frequent rail service to Southwestern Ontario, then shame on them.  Like others before them, they have taunted Ontarians with the spectre of better rail service in a region where people have proved they will use it.

Politicians being politicians, the Wynne government has already set itself up for a fall on the HSR proposal by expecting that ever-elusive private-sector solution.  They may be looking for financial silver bullets that will make their election promise deliverable without any public cost, but they’re apt to be surprised by what Collenette tells them.  Good.  He recognizes the funding question as being of paramount importance and not easily solved.

No matter what comes of this exercise, the provincial cabinet and the public should remember the old saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”  Collenette isn’t likely to deliver anything but the facts.  Let’s hope the pols are willing to accept and act on them.

Thanks to Greg Gormick who is the campaign coordinator for the Save VIA citizens’ committee of St. Marys, Ontario for writing this blog article.


  1. Malaysia and Singapore taking the next steps for a HSR.


Post a Comment