Government shows little interest in the future of VIA Rail

Ted Hsu
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VIA_Rail_Logo_2012-05-30-500x500Update (July 20): Lisa Raitt is the new Minister of Transport. Write to Lisa Raitt if you wish to express your opinion about passenger rail transport in Canada.


On June 4 in the House of Commons Bruce Hyer, the independent MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, asked the government why they seem content allowing VIA Rail to wither away and whether or not they plan to create a national strategy to improve VIA Rail’s services:

Mr. Speaker, VIA Rail announced service cuts a year ago and tooted about how ridership and revenues would be boosted, but VIA’s plan has gone off the rails. Its annual report shows operating expenses up and ridership down. There are fewer trains and they are emptier and later. Clearly, VIA intends to abandon Canada, except for the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

Will the minister show leadership with a national strategy to put VIA Rail back on the right track?

This is an important issue for Kingston and the Islands as VIA Rail provides an important link between our community and the surrounding cities of Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal. Many tourists and business travellers rely on VIA Rail every day for travel to Kingston, and I believe it is an important to have this alternative to automobile and airplane transportation. This is one of the reasons why Stephen Fletcher’s (the Conservative government’s Minister of State for Transport) response is so troubling:

Mr. Speaker, the member has correctly pointed out that people do not take the train as much as they did in the 1950s or 1940s. I am glad that is evident to him. I also hoped he would have supported the $1-billion of investment we put into VIA, but he did not.

Ridership continues to go down because there are alternative methods of transportation, like automobile, bus and airplane. We are making the best possible rail service, but we are not going to have taxpayers wasting money on trains that do not have people in them.

The Minister of State’s response suggests that he and his government are happy to just let VIA Rail ridership numbers drop without making any real effort to understand the trend or contemplate alternatives. Could it be, for example, that cutbacks to VIA Rail service in response to low ridership is a self-reinforcing trend? Is government funding for highway and airport infrastructure unnecessarily cementing our reliance on those forms of transport? Could there be alternate business models for VIA Rail that require higher investment, but result in a much higher ridership over time? Are we properly accounting for the avoided costs of highway congestion when an alternative, such as rail, is chosen?

VIA Rail can be an environmentally friendly and efficient alternative to the other forms of transportation. The government seems unconcerned by VIA Rail’s decline and is ignoring calls to do anything but continue to cut funding.