Does Via Rail’s survival depend on a new route through Ontario and Quebec?

Via Rail Union Station

Less than 20 years ago, intercity commuters leaving Toronto at 5 p.m. could take an express Via Rail train from Union Station in downtown Toronto and arrive at Central Station in downtown Montreal in three hours and 59 minutes.

In 2020, the same trip takes up to five hours. And that’s after the federal government invested more than $300 million over the past decade to improve the service.

Via Rail, a federal Crown corporation, has said it isn’t entirely to blame for these results.

Its passenger trains are using railway tracks that Via doesn’t own. CN, a former Crown corporation that was privatized in 1995, owns most of these tracks.

This requires Via to negotiate agreements on access and scheduling with CN, without guarantees that the passenger trains will have the timely access needed to keep trips on time.

“We’ve seen a massive deterioration in on-time performance over the last 10 years,” Terry Johnson, president of Transport Action Canada, a lobby group that advocates for more sustainable and reliable public transportation services, said in an interview.

WATCH: Via Rail is touting a new plan for Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Megan Robinson reports.
Click to play video 'Via Rail banks survival on high frequency rail project' Via Rail banks survival on high frequency rail project
Via Rail banks survival on high frequency rail project – Mar 11, 2020

Up to one-third of all of its trains were late over the past three years, it told Global News, mainly due to increased traffic on the rail infrastructure it shares with CN and other partners.

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Via is now proposing a new solution to get around CN’s tracks in the Toronto to Quebec City corridor, where most of its customers travel.

The so-called “High Frequency Rail” plan would cost an estimated $4.4 billion and allow Via to take control of its own infrastructure, including some currently underused train tracks on the modified route between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

If it succeeds, Via Rail says it could generate more revenues and reduce the subsidies it collects from taxpayers. But a number of obstacles remain to making this government priority a reality.

If it fails, Via has warned that its survival is at stake.

Drone shot of trains near Union Station in Toronto
A Via Rail train moves through Toronto on Feb. 10, 2020. Brent Rose/Global News

In a 2017 corporate planning report, Via said it was “impossible” for it to keep its trains on time under the current system. As a result, the company said it could lose passengers, forcing it to make “drastic” service cuts.

“Economic growth has led to network congestion that has caused service deterioration and negatively affects Via Rail’s financial performance and growth, posing a large risk to Via Rail’s viability and survival,” the company said in the 2017 report.

“Continuing with the status quo can only result in greater operating deficits and a gradual elimination of train services.”

In 2019, Via Rail reported that it wanted to avoid legal battles with CN over delays because it was “dependent on CN’s infrastructure and dispatch services” and wanted to maintain a positive operating relationship.

CN has said that its freight trains transport about $250 billion worth of merchandise every year and play an important role in the Canadian economy.

Via Rail estimates that it moves about five million passengers per year, with most of them travelling between its busiest stations in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Travellers at Union Station in Toronto
People pass through Union Station in Toronto on Feb. 12, 2020. Kurt Brownridge/Global News

Via Rail and the federally funded Canada Infrastructure Bank announced in January that they had awarded an engineering contract to two firms, AECOM and Arup, to finalize the High Frequency Rail route options by the end of March 2020 and to deliver a complete proposal by the end of March 2021. The latter would include an analysis of what it would cost to electrify the entire network, along with a construction schedule and operating costs over a 50-year lifespan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listed the project as a priority in the mandate letters he wrote in December 2019 for Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna.

The Trudeau government created the Canada Infrastructure Bank in 2017 to provide financing and support for major projects and entice private sector investments to improve the chances of success.

The government also announced $71 million in initial funding for the Via proposal in 2019 so that officials could start planning the project.

Trudeau’s cabinet would make a final decision on whether to proceed with high-frequency rail after reviewing recommendations from the two consulting firms. It could then take up to four years to complete construction, according to Via Rail’s corporate reports.

But even if the project succeeds, the projected trip times between Montreal and Toronto may still take about five hours, remaining slower than the express trains of the 1990s and the early 2000s, according to an internal memo sent to the deputy finance minister in January 2019 and obtained by Global News.

Although Via has suggested the project would still increase ridership and reduce operating costs, projections about the anticipated trip times have prompted questions about whether the Crown corporation has chosen the best option for passengers. 

“Our key question about HFR, we have not had this question answered is, is this the cheapest way to do it? Or is there a way to do it on the existing corridor with political will?” asked Johnson, from the transportation lobby group.

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Via Rail 1990s ad
A Via Rail ad from the 1990s promotes the express train. Supplied image courtesy of Terry Johnson

The internal memo from the Finance Department said some trip times could improve.

For example, it estimates a one-hour reduction in the trip time from Toronto to Ottawa, making it a three-hour-and-15-minute trip. The memo, previously released to the Globe and Mail through access to information legislation, said the Montreal-Ottawa trip would also be about 20 to 30 minutes faster, taking about one hour and 33 minutes, while the Montreal-Quebec City trip would be about one hour faster than current schedules, taking about two hours and 10 minutes.

The project would rely on some existing underused tracks that go through Peterborough, Ont., instead of Kingston, as well as through Trois-Rivières, Que., on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, instead of Drummondville, on the south shore. Via could still offer service on the old routes owned by CN, although it hasn’t confirmed how all of its schedules would change.

Global News asked CN whether it had the capacity on its existing right-of-way to add dedicated tracks for passenger rail along the entire route between Montreal and Toronto and whether it has discussed this possibility with federal officials. But CN declined to say, citing commercial confidentiality.

“CN works closely with Via to provide quality service and Via’s on-time performance on the busiest Quebec to Windsor corridor is consistent and pretty solid,” CN spokesman Alexandre Boulé said in an email to Global News. “Our teams work diligently to balance the operating realities of running freight, commuter and intercity passenger service on the same network.”

In 2016, Canada’s auditor general released a report stating that Via Rail hadn’t succeeded in improving passenger service following $318 million in federal investments. This money was mainly used to add passing tracks between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal to reduce congestion and speed up trips.

It was part of about $923 million in capital spending for Via, since 2008, that included money to renovate stations and refurbish Via’s fleet.

 

The audit found that the infrastructure project went well over its initial budget of $21 million, established in 2007, and a revised budget of $251 million in 2009.

And when the project was completed, they managed to add only 70 kilometres of new track instead of their goal of 160 kilometres. Trip times also got longer with fewer riders on the trains, instead of improving the situation as intended, the report found.

The audit said the new tracks failed to deliver the anticipated benefits because Via Rail was unsuccessful in negotiating improved access to CN’s tracks.

Boulé from CN explained that the recent government investments allowed Via to partially meet its goals by adding additional trips between the three cities to its schedule, improving options for passengers. Ridership has also increased in the corridor since the 2016 audit.

But it isn’t clear what kind of deal Via signed with CN prior to the federal infrastructure investments.

“We’re not privy to those details. So much of the train service agreement between Via Rail and CN is covered by commercial confidentiality,” said Johnson, from Transport Action Canada. 

“People come to us all the time asking: ‘What can we do about the fact that our trains are always late? What can we do about the fact we don’t have enough trains? What can we do about getting service back to this town that has a growing population and needs train service?’ And we have this document that nobody has access to and so you cannot really answer some of those questions at the moment.”

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But passenger railway advocates like Johnson and former NDP MP Olivia Chow say new legislation could help resolve the ongoing conflicts between freight traffic and passenger trains by giving Via Rail trains priority.

Chow attempted to introduce a private member’s bill on the topic when she was an MP, but it failed to get through the House of Commons.

”No one can say that (Canada) is serious in dealing with the climate crisis if we let our passenger rail system collapse, which is what’s happening now,” Chow said in an interview in Toronto. “And it’s not too late. Let’s just get it done right. Let’s put a legislative framework around it, buy the tracks, invest heavily in electric trains and let’s be proud of passenger trains.”

The Crown corporation has also suggested several times in its corporate reports that Transport Canada should intervene. 

A spokeswoman for Garneau said that Transport Canada is reviewing the relationship between passenger and freight trains, but has no plans to introduce new legislation.

“The Government of Canada understands that delays are frustrating for passenger rail users and communities that rely on these services. The interaction between freight and passenger rail, and its impacts on on-time-performance at VIA Rail, is a difficult and long-standing issue, and one that Transport Canada is reviewing,” said Garneau’s director of communications Amy Butcher, in an email to Global News.

“Work is progressing to advance the High Frequency Rail proposal, and we are supporting Via Rail to offer the best service possible in the meantime.”

The union representing Via Rail’s employees, Unifor, is also pushing for new legislation as part of a larger sustainable transportation strategy.

“I think it’s paramount,” said Bruce Snow, Unifor’s transportation director. “I think that today we recognize the changes that are taking place in the environment. There’s a whole new generation of Canadians that are very concerned. And in our view, this would be one way to not only have an impact, but to directly deal with these issues.”

A VIA Rail employee stands on the platform next to an F40 locomotive at the train station in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
A VIA Rail employee stands on the platform next to an F40 locomotive at the train station in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In terms of the new proposed high-frequency project, the government has also set up a joint team from the Canada Infrastructure Bank and Via Rail to lead consultations with Indigenous nations along the proposed route, among other tasks. But with the project still in its preliminary stages, a lot of this work hasn’t yet begun.

Via also noted that it still needs to negotiate separate deals with local transit officials in Montreal and Toronto, which are working on their own commuter expansion projects. These projects could complicate Via’s plans or drive up costs for High Frequency Rail.

For example, in Montreal, an electric light rail project that includes a link between downtown and the Trudeau airport requires some work in a tunnel that goes under Mount-Royal. But Via would need to do its own track work to ensure that its heavier trains can use the tunnel.

WATCH: How did Via Rail’s on-time performance get so bad.
Click to play video 'How did passenger train service in Canada get so bad?' How did passenger train service in Canada get so bad?
How did passenger train service in Canada get so bad? – Mar 10, 2020

The Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec (CDPQ), which is managing the new light rail project, called the Réseau express métropolitain (REM), declined to provide details about the status of its negotiations with Via Rail, despite repeated requests from Global News.

CDPQ is scheduled to close the tunnel to passenger trains as of March 30, so that crews can begin excavating and replacing tracks.

But neither Via nor the CDPQ would say whether any of the work needed for heavy trains could be completed before the initial launch of the REM project, expected in about two years.

Via Rail said it is using the $71 million in federal money awarded last year for preliminary studies, including on the track work needed in the Montreal tunnel. 

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Johnson, from Transport Action Canada, said these problems and their potential cost implications reflect the absence of a coherent federal transportation strategy — something he said has been missing for decades.

“It has meant the provinces have taken the ball and they’ve run with it,” he said, referring to the commuter rail expansion projects in Montreal and Toronto. “Those are provincial initiatives and they know they have their own agenda, they want to move forward as fast as possible, they’re not necessarily willing to wait on Ottawa to get things done that they need for the commuter belts.”

He said the absence of a federal plan was also noticeable after Greyhound announced it was cancelling most of its western bus routes.

“That wasn’t recognized in the way it should have been as an emergency that was leaving people stranded without transportation,” Johnson said.

Shoshanna Saxe, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in research on sustainable urban infrastructure, said Canadians could improve living conditions and environmental performance by prioritizing passenger rail.

“We always overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in a decade,” she said in an interview. “We can choose to build the future differently than we’ve built the past. We can imagine a different way forward.”

This is Part 3 in a three-part series investigating the state of Via Rail, Canada’s main intercity passenger rail service. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series here.