It’s time the feds got the trains running on time

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Here is some good news about passenger rail. Ridership is up and VIA Rail’s train schedules, reduced during the pandemic, have been largely reinstated.

Here’s the bad news: Passengers are returning to a service that, in VIA’s own description, offers “very limited frequencies,” is marked by “declining value,” and where schedules — at least arrival times — are often ambitious.

The potential of passenger rail – faster travel times, frequent service, reliable schedules – still seems like a distant mirage in Canada, the subject of much study, political promise and endless consultation, while the reality of daily service seems to be aggravate.

Indeed, just last week, Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced another study to explore “options” for improving frequencies, punctuality and faster journeys in southern Ontario.

The report will be done by the end of next year. Actual implementation? Who knows.

Instead of teasing future improvements, it’s time for the federal government to focus on the day-to-day work needed to keep passenger trains running on time. Because they don’t. In the second quarter of 2022, VIA’s on-time performance was only 53%.

That’s because VIA’s trains run on tracks owned and controlled by the transit companies. VIA pays dearly for these fees – among the highest track access fees in North America and Europe, it says – but without the promise of good access or reliability.

As rail travelers are often reminded, there is a pecking order on the tracks and they do not have priority. “The rail network is very busy as our passenger trains share tracks with freight trains and we are dependent on the access granted to us by the owner of the infrastructure,” notes the standard alert sent to travelers from the delayed trains.

The sad reality is that journey times are getting longer, not shorter, because passenger service is at the mercy of these freight trains. How is this progress? “VIA Rail is struggling to provide reliable, frequent and on-time operations,” the rail company said in its Corporate Plan 2021-2025.

For travel in Ontario and Quebec, passenger rail offers enormous potential to take cars off the highways and reduce congestion at airports. In busy corridors, a train trip should be the smart choice over flying, especially given the often exorbitant airfares.

But train travel only becomes the preferred choice if service is always punctual and travel times are reduced.

VIA Rail has its own dreams, a proposal known as “High Frequency Train” which would see passenger trains running on dedicated tracks, escaping the current congestion. The federal government has been considering the idea since 2016 and has funded studies. If it goes ahead, it’s in at least a decade.

We need solutions now. Transport Canada says track access agreements are a “business deal” negotiated between VIA Rail Canada and track owners. “As such, it would be inappropriate for the Minister or Department to comment on the content or implementation of these agreements,” the department said in a statement.

If VIA Rail has a beef, it can file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, the department said.

Absurdity. Trade deals haven’t stopped Alghabra from getting involved in resolving the debacle of delays and congestion at Canadian airports in recent months, as it should. It’s time rail travelers get the same attention, not excuses for inaction.

Rather than announce another study, here is an idea for the minister: he must bring together the leaders of VIA Rail and the transport companies and find a solution that better serves the interests of rail passengers, instead of making them play second fiddle fiddles to covered wagons.

Transport Canada said in a recent press release that “Canadians have made it clear that they want faster and greener passenger rail service.” It’s time for Alghabra to do something about that desire. Not in 10 years. Not in five. Now.

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