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Is there any solution for the current passenger rail crisis in Canada?

It seems that ever since VIA Rail Canada was formed in 1977 the same problems and grim realities
continue to exist.

Without any legislation to support their existence, VIA Rail seemed doomed from the start. Then came the disastrous decision to privatize our national railroad  CN Rail in 1995. There were no safeguards in place to protect VIA Rail our passenger rail service provider.  CN wasted no time in ensuring VIA was treated poorly: running second fiddle to freight operations.

It did not matter if it was the Liberals or the Tories in power federally. Each party has made draconian cuts to VIA's funding.

VIA Rail has done little to help its cause over the years with ridiculous high pricing and an arrogant management style that has made them unaccountable and out of touch with the public. The auditor general report identified deficiencies in VIA's project management systems and practices.

Today the status in Canada of our national passenger rail company VIA Rail must be considered as critically endangered. They need over $1 billion dollars to update their aging fleet. Their flagship train The Canadian has become a punching bag for CN with on time performance around 25% and delays between 10 and 24 hours do occur.

In desperation, VIA Rail's lawyer turned CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano has resorted to a $4 billion plan to run slow trains along a half a century old abandoned passenger rail corridor. Small communities like Sharbot Lake have been told by VIA Rail they will get passenger rail service returned. Other communities like Pontypool, Perth and Tweed are fighting for a stop along the route.

Poor treatment by CN of VIA trains running on CN tracks has been a serious problem for VIA but this extreme move to the former Ontario-Quebec Railway line has a myriad of its own problems.

Canadians dreaming of modern high speed passenger trains have been continually disappointed for the last 50 years as over 22 studies have been done in Ontario alone with no action taken by any government.

In Alberta 4 studies have sat on the shelf that has prevented Edmonton and Calgary being connected by high speed rail. In BC, they are undertaking their 1st study ($1 million) of the Vancouver- Seattle high speed train potential.

The Liberal government in Ontario has shown their commitment to high speed trains running between London-Kitchener-Toronto. This route was suggested in the 1995 study as the preferred route to Toronto. The proposal is now being studied in depth.

On a positive note the concept of the 3Ps, Public, Private Partnerships are under serious consideration for funding/building and operating the London-Toronto HSR proposal.

The provincial opposition Conservative party has not stated their support for the project. Their leader Patrick Brown and the party seems unable to articulate any plan for passenger rail in Ontario.

So the bitter reality is that more than 40 years after its creation, VIA Rail has the same fundamental problems today as it did then. Will the Trudeau government do what no other government has done before?

The federal Liberal government must:

1. Pass an Act of Parliament with legislation that clearly outlines what VIA Rail's mandate is.
2. Develop Regulations under the Act that:

  • protect the rights of passenger trains travelling on freight railroad, including developing a conflict resolution process with significant financial penalties for freight railroad companies that contravene the regulations.
  • secures adequate funding to provide a truly national passenger rail system for all Canadians from coast to coast.

3. Pursue a 3Ps performance based approach to resolve the significant infrastructure issues relating to modernizing Canada's rail infrastructure to have high speed trains travelling over 250km/h on dedicated track.
4. Give VIA Rail immediate funding for purchasing new passenger rail cars and appoint a competent person to oversee this project to ensure VIA Rail makes the best decisions that will benefit Canadian taxpayers.

Let us be cautiously optimistic for the renewal of passenger rail in Canada in 2018.


  1. The Federal Gov't needs to provide funding to the authorities responsible for ensuring that the rails and railbeds are up to safe and passenger comfort standards. With the current situation of Via Rail taking a back seat to freight operations, the owners of the rail only provide a basic track. I recently took the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, ( my 5th trip) and was subjected to one of the roughest rail experiences. If Via just spent money upgrading their fleet, other than the Prestige class, they should have spent more on the undercarriage and trucks of the coaches.
    Its time to get good (and higher speed) rail across Canada before it ends up like on Vancouver Island with the passenger service discontinued due to poorly maintained tracks.

  2. Is there any solution for the current passenger rail crisis in Canada? There are many problems as outlined by this article. They include reluctant host railroads, weak Via Rail influence, aging equipment and infrastructure. However, the host railroads are sometimes compliant, Via Rail has had marketing successes, the aging equipment is in better shape than newer stock in some other nations, and good tracks exists between many Canadian cities. The main problem to my eyes is; NOBODY IS TRULY IN CHARGE. CP, CN, VIA and local operators all have their own agendas. In Montreal we have still another player with the Caisse planning a light-rail line that would exclude VIA and AMT.Compare this to countries like France that have a national system. French authorities can turn any rail line into high-speed, freight, commuter or combination thereof. There are even a couple of lines that are high-speed passenger that host freight trains as well. In Canada, VIA has to settle with using a poorly-aligned abandoned railroad to get some exclusive passenger right-of-way. In France, only parts of the system are made high-speed at a time. High-speed trains use them then fan out over the entire regular rail system. Gradually, the French high-speed system has grown to cover most corners of the country. In Canada, are we going to have to wait five? ten? fifteen? years until a medium-speed train travels between Montreal and Toronto? Political will might not last that long. It may sound like I am advocating nationalization of the railroads, but that is not absolutely necessary. CP and CN do cooperate when it suits them; they share tracks in the Fraser Canyon. Pay them to run VIA and come up with a high-speed plan. I believe the results will be much more cost-effective and useful than what is being proposed now.


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