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Work’s chugging along to try to prioritize people over freight on Canada’s rail lines

It was supposed to be a two-hour train ride from London, Ont., to Toronto’s Union Station, but it didn’t work out that way for Allen Morgan and his wife Laura.

“I just thought it’d be kind of nice to go and just relax,” Morgan said. “We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll get to Toronto by 6.’ We had some dinner plans.”

Little did they know they wouldn’t make it to dinner until three hours later, thanks to a series of delays outside Via Rail’s control. First, it was a worker injured on the tracks. Then, it was signal issues. 

Each incident caused the couple’s train to miss its time slot, and because CN Rail, which owns the tracks, favours its trains first, the two-hour trip turned into a five-hour ordeal.

It’s why Via Rail trains are often late, and it seems to be worsening. While Via’s on-time performance has hovered around 70 per cent for roughly a decade, it dropped to 57 last year. This year, trains were on time half of the time during Via’s third quarter, ending Sept. 30.

Via owns three per cent of the tracks it uses, meaning it’s at the mercy of others, including CN, which owns 83 per cent. The rest are owned by railways including CPKC and Metrolinx, which runs GO Transit.

Calls for change in railway prioritization

In October, Via chief executive officer Mario Péloquin called on Ottawa to give passenger trains the formal right of way on tracks, similar to Amtrak in the U.S., and a new private member’s bill tabled in December aims to put that into law.

Taylor Bachrach, the NDP’s transportation critic, has tabled the Rail Passenger Priority Act. To drive the message home, he set off from Toronto on Dec. 17 aboard a Via train bound for Smithers, B.C.

When CBC News spoke with him on Dec. 19, he was west of Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario, waiting for a freight train to pass. “This is only Day 2 and we’ve done this well over a dozen times.

“We can look around the world at plenty of other countries that do a better job,” he said. “Really, it has to do with priorities and it has to do with having a federal government that has a vision.”

The bill would fix Ottawa’s mistake of privatizing CN in 1995 and selling off control of the railways, said AJ Wray, a doctoral candidate at London, Ont.’s Western University who’s studying public transportation planning.

“What we should have done is placed an obligation … you get to run these as a private railway, but you have to retain priority for passenger rail.”

Wray added that the government should leverage its constitutional authority and establish a federal rail network.

Via was formed by the federal government in 1977 after CN, then a Crown corporation, spun off its passenger service following decades of declining revenues. Canadian Pacific Railway’s passenger service was folded the following year.

WATCH | Archival video explains Canada’s drastic cuts to Via Rail service in the late 1980s:

VIA cuts routes and staff in 1989

34 years ago

Duration 2:37

Transport Minister Benoit Bouchard announces deep cuts to passenger train service across the country.

Decades of cuts brought service reductions, deferred upgrades and fewer passengers. In 1982, Via carried 7.2 million people. By 1992, it was 3.6 million.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic saw major service cuts, five million people rode Via. Not all have come back and only 3.3 million rode the rails last year.

Although services have been restored, levels are still below pre-COVID times. The organization hasn’t seen a full-year profit since 2017.

Federal government working on high-frequency rail

“The point that… [Bachrach] made is that Amtrak in the U.S. does put a point of privilege on right-of-way for passengers… we could look at it more to see how it works there,” said Peter Fragiskatos, Liberal MP for London North Centre and the parliamentary secretary to the minister of housing, infrastructure and communities.

Fragiskatos said he was giving the bill serious consideration, but it would be a “sea-change” to how things are done.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in goods cross Canada every year by rail and prioritizing passengers could see a big economic impact.

“I think we’ve got to talk about a balance,” Fragiskatos said.

The Railway Association of Canada has said any changes to railway right of way would need to be balanced against the importance of efficient freight operations.

Ottawa is in consultation for a multibillion-dollar high-frequency rail project that would connect Toronto and Quebec City with dedicated tracks. The corridor amounts to three-quarters of Via’s ridership.

Three consortiums will submit proposals, each presenting two options: one allowing for speeds of up to 200 km/h, and another that can go faster during high-speed legs. The current Toronto to Montreal trip takes five hours, going no faster than 160 km/h. 

A decision is expected in mid-2024, Fragiskatos said. Project completion is planned for the mid-2030s.

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