Public Values

Town halls across Canada discuss public transport needs

Citizens' help requested to produce a blueprint for Via Rail's revival and expansion.

Gow: CA may soon be the only industrialized nation without proper, effective rail passenger service.OTTAWA, ON, August 10, 2012: In response to the cuts now being made to Via Rail Canada, Transport Action Canada and its five regional affiliates are launching their nationwide town hall workshop project, National Dream Renewed. The first stop will be Sarnia, Ontario.

"We're pleased to accept the invitation of the Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership and Mayor Mike Bradley to launch this project in their city, which has long called for more and better Via service," says Harry Gow, past president of Transport Action Canada and chair of the National Dream Renewed project. "The decision to cancel half of Sarnia's passenger trains is baffling, especially when the government is currently investing $923 million to renew Via's fleet and other capital assets. What Sarnia and other Canadian communities need is more Via service, not less."

  "The current service cuts, as well as an internal government review of the future of our rail passenger system, are being undertaken without any involvement of the people who own Via, namely the citizens of Canada."

The two-hour Sarnia National Dream Renewed workshop will be held on Saturday, September 8 at 10 a.m. at the Lambton Inn, which is located on the grounds of Lambton College at 1485 London Road.

To be conducted by Toronto transportation writer and policy advisor Greg Gormick, the National Dream Renewed will inform the public of the vast untapped economic, social and environmental potential of Canada's national rail passenger service. Canadians will be asked for their views on how Via can be reformed to sustainably provide a high-quality, cost-effective service similar to that provided in every other industrialized nation. The goal is to produce a blueprint for Via's revival and expansion based on the input of Canadians from Atlantic to Pacific to Hudson Bay.

"The Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership (SLEP), which leads economic development in our community, is a vigorous opponent of the VIA cuts," says Sarnia mayor and SLEP chair Mike Bradley. "Composed of business, labour, agriculture, educators and local government, SLEP believes in the need for a national transportation strategy for Canada in which passenger rail is a vital component."

Transport Action Canada will also conduct a town hall workshop on Tuesday, September 18 in Stratford, Ontario, which is losing a significant portion of its rail passenger service under the federal government's plan to eliminate $41 million in Via operating funds over the next three years. The details of these and other National Dream Renewed workshops will be available on Transport Action's dedicated website, National Dream Renewed.

Says Gormick, "The current service cuts, as well as an internal government review of the future of our rail passenger system, are being undertaken without any involvement of the people who own Via, namely the citizens of Canada. Many have told us they want to be heard. These workshops will provide them with that opportunity."

The National Dream Renewed project is a joint initiative of Transport Action Canada and its five regional associations in Atlantic Canada, Québec (Transport 2000 Québec), Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. Transport Action Canada and its regional affiliates are non-profit organizations whose primary purpose is research, public education and consumer advocacy. They promote environmentally-sound transportation solutions and get actively involved in a wide range of issues, such as public transportation, safety, accessibility, energy efficiency, environmental protection, intermodal co-operation and government regulation.

Can you imagine Canada without passenger trains?
by Harry Gow

Probably not. But many others can. They include numerous high-ranking civil servants, certain freight railways and tourist train operators and some of Via Rail Canada's air and highway competitors. If they get their way, Canada will be the only industrialized nation without proper and effective rail passenger service.

It will make us totally dependent on less efficient and unsustainable forms of transportation. We will be socially, economically and environmentally uncompetitive with those other countries that are investing today in expanded and improved rail passenger service.

Today, Via is once again being forced to chop services on what many consider already a minimal rail passenger system. A federal government cut of $40 million in Via operating funds over the next three years has already forced the discontinuance of several Via trains. More cuts are coming.

What can you do about it? You can join us for one of the numerous National Dream Renewed town hall workshops we will host across Canada this fall. This is your chance to learn more about Via and voice your opinion about its future.

Please join us in ensuring we finally have the efficient, affordable and sustainable rail passenger service that Transport Action has called for since our 1976 inception as Canada's only nationwide public transportation education and advocacy association.

Backgrounder — The Via Rail Canada cuts: Starving a good iron horse to death

On June 27, 2012, Via Rail Canada announced it was reducing service on six of its routes, affecting cities and towns everywhere from Halifax to Vancouver, including many that have no other public transportation options. This is the third major round of cuts Via has weathered since it was formed in 1977 as a publicly-owned Crown corporation with a mandate to ostensibly revive, modernize and expand Canada's rail passenger network.

The current cuts — which began to take effect on July 29 and will continue through the end of October — are reducing the frequency of service on the following routes:

•Halifax-Moncton-Miramichi-Montréal (the Ocean);
•Montreal-Ottawa;
•Toronto-Niagara Falls;
•Toronto-Stratford-London-Sarnia;
•Toronto-Brantford-London-Windsor; and
•Toronto-Winnipeg-Edmonton-Vancouver (the Canadian).

The reasons for the cuts vary, according to who you ask. Via describes these service eliminations as "part of its ongoing modernization" and "taking action to better meet customer demand". Eliminating service and driving away current and potential riders strikes many as an odd way to modernize any competitive rail passenger service. It is especially puzzling when one considers the strategic expansion under way on other passenger railways around the world.

Via maintains this first round of cuts has nothing to do with the federal government's reduction of its operating budget. This year, Via's funding was cut by $6.5 million. Two more cuts will reduce Via's operating budget by $15.1 million in 2013 and $19.6 million in 2014. The expectation is that the subsequent service cuts will be even more severe. Inside sources suggest all service on the Toronto-Niagara Falls, Toronto-Stratford-London-Sarnia, Montréal-Gaspé and Victoria-Courtenay routes is in jeopardy. Nor is the future of the two remaining eastern and western transcontinental trains secure.

Moreover, Transport Canada is currently conducting an internal and highly-critical review of Via's future. The public is not being asked for input on this project, which will decide Via's fate.

These negative activities are especially strange in light of the federal government's recent investment of $923 million in Via's capital renewal. It makes little sense to renew a transportation system that then reduces many of its services. However, Via says additional trains will be added in the Montréal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle at a time "to be determined".

Even the claim of impending service improvements on this small portion of Via's route network is questionable. Via's investment program has run into serious problems, ranging from the insolvency of the firm contracted to rebuild the bulk of its rolling stock to cost overruns and demands by one freight railway for more investment in infrastructure projects on its lines that weren't factored into Via's original budget.

The current and future cuts will not improve Via's service offering to the public or boost its financial performance. As has been proven by other passenger railways, reducing train frequency doesn't pay; it costs. The best example of this is on Via's US equivalent, Amtrak. The quasi-public corporation has completed studies of its three remaining tri-weekly long-haul trains; all other Amtrak routes have daily or better service. Amtrak reports less-than-daily trains incur high costs because "employees and/or equipment have a one to two day turnaround delay during which employees receive held-away pay and equipment sits idle without generating any ticket revenue."

In light of Amtrak's positive experience with its numerous long-haul trains, it is discouraging to hear the recently-appointed president of Via, Marc Laliberté, commenting that passenger trains don't make sense for distances of 800 km or more. A quick look at the maps and timetables of major passenger railways around the world proves this is clearly a mistaken viewpoint. The US and Europe are served by modern, efficient trains operating on numerous routes of 1,000 km or more.

If Canada is to compete globally with other industrialized and emerging nations that are investing public funds in the expanded, improved rail passenger service, a sea of change in government policy is required. Canada needs a national transportation strategy that embraces rail passenger service as a key component of a system of multi-modal services and facilities. Other countries have demonstrated there are solid economic, social, environmental and nationally strategic factors that favour rail passenger investment.

In the US, respected organizations and government agencies, such as the American Public Transportation Association, States for Passenger Rail and the US Department of Commerce, have determined that rail passenger investment produces numerous economic, environmental and social benefits, including:

•diversion of traffic from other publicly supported modes of transportation;
•job creation during the construction or equipment manufacturing phases;
•ongoing jobs and economic spin-off from the operation;
•savings in health care costs due to diversion of traffic from less safe modes and reductions in emissions that affect the public's health;
•savings in national energy costs, given the higher energy efficiency and reduced fuel requirements of rail; and
•residential and/or commercial development and economic activity in the areas surrounding the stations and other facilities.

Links and sources
  Transport Action launches cross-Canada campaign for better Via Rail service

Posted: August 16, 2012

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