July 29, 2017 — Is there a Plan B for our rail passenger service?

ST. MARYS, ONTARIO – As the federal and provincial governments spend $20 million on studies of multi-billion-dollar solutions to our rail passenger problem, All Aboard St. Marys wants to know what will happen to our existing services if these big-bang projects fail to launch.

“There doesn’t appear to be a Plan B and that concerns us greatly,” says Chris West of the St. Marys citizens’ committee. “There is no assurance the $21-billion Southwestern Ontario high- speed rail (HSR) proposal or VIA’s $5.5-billion high-frequency rail (HFR) scheme for a new route east of Toronto will happen. At best, they’d both take many years to construct, their funding is far from assured and the data supporting them remains sketchy and unconvincing. What we’re hearing from Ottawa, Queen’s Park and VIA all sounds like spin doctoring.”

Without any back-up plans, All Aboard St. Marys is especially concerned by VIA’s own report on its future prospects.

Says West, “VIA’s Summary of the 2016-2020 Corporate Plan identifies half of its fleet as having ‘structural-related life expectancy issues.’ In plain English, more than 200 of VIA’s cars are deteriorating rapidly, they cannot be rebuilt again and VIA will have to start retiring them in 2020, leading to service reductions. A $1 million study by VIA was supposed to prevent this by making the case to Ottawa for $1.5 billion in new cars and locomotives. But VIA didn’t get that funding in the 2017 Federal Budget.”

In a recent Toronto Star article, All Aboard St. Marys campaign coordinator Greg Gormick pointed out that new passenger equipment is now being produced for VIA’s U.S. counterpart, Amtrak. While VIA continues to study its options, modern equipment perfectly suited for Canada is rolling off the production lines in Sacramento, CA and Elmira, NY.

The Toronto Star article dealing with the lengthy stream of government studies is available at https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/07/25/time-to-derail-studies-and- improve-train-service-now-opinion.html

“VIA is close to the breaking point,” says West. “We don’t need any further studies and we certainly can’t count on long-range dream schemes that sound like the pre-election promises we’ve heard repeatedly in the past. We need real solutions to a problem that could easily finish off Canada’s remaining passenger trains altogether.”

 All Aboard St. Marys finds this chillingly similar to the situation that existed in the 1980s, when VIA operated a system twice as large as today using a fleet composed mainly of old equipment long overdue for replacement.

“The Mulroney government’s own Rail Passenger Action Force spelled out what was required,” says West. “Instead of heeding their advice, the government eliminated half of VIA’s fleet by hacking off half of VIA in early 1990. One of the flimsy excuses was that the old equipment made VIA too expensive to maintain. Totally ignored was the fact that the government’s own experts had warned of this and developed an affordable plan to prevent it.”

This followed a similar cutback in 1981 by the Trudeau government, which cited the rising cost of VIA’s ancient fleet as a reason to cut off 20 per cent of its national system. The anticipated savings were to be applied to new cars and locomotives, but the government failed to buy the promised number, leading directly to the Mulroney government’s cuts in 1990. This also contributed to the Harper government’s VIA cuts of 2012.

Says West, “This is not just a problem for us here in Southwestern Ontario. It affects VIA’s services throughout the entire Quebec-Windsor Corridor and the Ocean, the last train in the Maritimes. The clapped out equipment mentioned in VIA’s corporate plan is used on all of these trains and all are threatened.”

Also of concern is the fact that VIA’s Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal HFR plan has recently gained an extension to Quebec City, but without any change in the estimated cost to reflect the addition. As well, the whole VIA plan is dependent on a new corridor fleet, which the government has failed so far to authorize.

With every indication that a slashing similar to 1981, 1990 and 2012 awaits our remaining passenger trains, All Aboard St. Marys will focus on making this an issue with backbenchers in the current governments in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park, and their opposition colleagues.

Says West, “The MPs and MPPs must become the real advocates if this mess is to be resolved. Elected officials of all political stripes need to work on the public’s behalf if we’re to have an affordable, practical and urgent Plan B. That can only start with an immediate order for modern, high-performance equipment. If not, VIA will tumble into a free fall by 2020.”