Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen

Barbara Kay: The case for subsidizing trains

A Shinkansen bullet train sits at the platform at Tokyo Train Station in Japan.

Next year is Canada’s 150th anniversary. We need a project to mark the occasion that will do us proud in the future, but that speaks to our collective memory.

Most nations are born in violence. We owe our identity to the Big Choo Choo. I therefore propose as our defining anniversary project a commitment to renewed and improved passenger rail service throughout Canada. (Please read this column, Transport Minister Marc Garneau.)

We’re at a crossroads with rail service. Age does not necessarily consign a transportation mode to obsolescence. You don’t see stagecoaches any more but, in many parts of the world, especially Europe and Japan, continually upgraded trains co-exist harmoniously with air travel, and over moderate distances are the speediest, most convenient and most efficient way to travel.

Of course Europe and Japan were “lucky” in that their old bombed-out train networks had to be entirely replaced after the Second World War, which the Marshall Plan allowed them to do in style. Japan and Europe are both geographically smaller, with denser populations, then is true here. Canada’s fleet, serving a larger area, is by contrast old, decrepit and slow. And that’s a cultural crime.

The federal auditor-general’s office recently released a report that demands a clear-cut decision on the future of passenger rail travel. The report indicates an increase in late-arrival times over the past two years, from one in five trains to one in four. This deterioration in service — on-time performance being “the main factor in customer satisfaction” — has resulted in a decrease in passenger traffic from 4.1 million in 2010 to 3.8 million in 2014.

Passengers down means public costs up: The government provided Via Rail $56 million more in operating costs in 2014 than in 2010 — $317 million in all. So? That’s a pittance in the scheme of things. The entire Via subsidy is a third of what Ottawa is considering bestowing on Bombardier for its over-budget, behind-schedule planes.

Let’s get past the bean-counting. The CBC costs a fortune, but we support it for cultural reasons. Via is not only a significant part of our culture, it serves a more fundamental purpose. Rail passenger service could improve if basics such as governance, managerial competency and goodwill collaboration with freight service could be resolved.

Decades ago, nobody cared much about which form of transportation was greener than the other. Now we do. Per-passenger emissions by trains are 10 per cent those of airplanes. A train requires one-fifth the energy of an airplane to move an equivalent number of passengers. You can move a ton of freight five times farther by rail than you can by truck on the same amount of fuel. Right now trains run on a hybrid diesel-electric system. If/when the system is all electric, it will be that much more green. Aren’t we all environmentalists now? These are striking numbers.

I spoke with Greg Gormick, a Toronto consultant and policy adviser steeped in transportation research, and a fourth-generation champion of railways. He is presently serving as the campaign co-ordinator for the Save VIA Committee of St. Marys, a town between Stratford and London that is highly dependent on trains. We spoke about Canada’s unique situation as a kind of “sideways Chile,” in Gormick’s words, with a population strung out along a rail corridor.

Gormick’s solution to the impasse is High-Performance Rail (HPR), a middle ground between Via’s current service of tracks shared with freight, and High-Speed Rail (HSR), which operates on new, hugely costly all-electrified tracks, which would need to be built from scratch.

HPR, Gormick says in a report, could at a fairly modest cost, and using existing rails, operate at much higher speeds with increased frequency, reduced travel times, enhanced amenities, better all-weather reliability, and better connections with local transit. HPR is already working on six Amtrak corridors in the Northeast, the Midwest and California, with eight more being planned.

Via’s seven-route Quebec-Windsor corridor serves the 18 million — half! — of Canadians who inhabit this, the economic heart of Canada. More than three million travellers use the train annually. Gormick reckons HPR, which could reduce the Montreal-Toronto run time to less than three hours, would be a strong incentive to privilege train over plane (add in airport security and other considerations and time spent is about equal at that point). An investment of $3 billion now could replace Via’s aging fleet with modern trains capable of 200 km/hour, as well as upgrading tracks and signal crossings, eliminating many dangerous at-grade crossings.

Rail improvement projects, Gormick says, generate up to four times their investment costs in economic spin-offs and job creation. HPR would suck cars off the road and please young people (they are especially enthusiastic, Gormick tells me, as many of them prefer public transportation to driving).

In short, if we build it, and it’s speedy and comfortable and arrives on time, they will ride it. All aboooooooard?

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