Via Rail Resurgent

Transport Minister David Collenette calls himself a train buff. As a boy growing up in post-war England, he says the sights and sounds of London's Marylebone Station were an everyday fascination.

Transport Minister David Collenette calls himself a train buff. As a boy growing up in post-war England, he says the sights and sounds of London's Marylebone Station were an everyday fascination. "The coal trains used to marshal behind my bedroom window," he recalls. "I used to be a train-spotter." So Collenette takes special satisfaction in the way the cabinet job he has held since 1997 has let him become the biggest booster passenger rail has had in Ottawa in a long time. In spring 2000, Collenette persuaded Jean Chrétien and the rest of the cabinet to let him inject $400 million over five years into VIA RAIL CANADA's capital spending, allowing the government-owned railway to, among other things, buy roomier new cars and refurbish rundown stations.

Even with Collenette in charge at TRANSPORT CANADA, though, the biggest dream of Canadian passenger rail proponents has been stalled. In 1998, a consortium of companies proposed a high-speed service for the country's busiest routes, the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. But the estimated $11-billion cost of upgrading tracks and buying new trains - a third of which the federal government would have had to pay - proved too much for the Liberals. The grand plan for bringing 320-km/h trains to Canada, comparable to France's famously fast Trains à Grande Vitesse, or TGVs, never left the station.

But if truly high-speed trains will not be rolling in Canada anytime soon, higher-speed rail is now a real possibility. Collenette told Maclean's he has asked VIA to develop a proposal before the end of this year for a service that would significantly cut travel times on those busy routes. "In my discussions with VIA, I've asked, 'What would it take to get faster trains without going the whole TGV route?'" Collenette said. The plan VIA is working on for Collenette would boost maximum speeds to 200-240 km/h from the current 160-170 km/h. That would slice about 45 minutes off the current two-hour trip from Ottawa to Montreal.

How much it would all cost is, of course, the critical question. Collenette said it's too early to put a firm figure on the project, but he allowed it would run to "many hundreds of millions." A rail industry official said $2 billion is a reasonable early estimate. Since VIA runs its trains mostly on tracks owned by CN Rail and CP Rail, those freight railway companies are closely involved in drafting the proposal Collenette wants to put before cabinet. Much of the money would be spent straightening tracks, building bridges and tunnels, and making other improvements to let trains go faster and make fewer stops. New locomotives might also be needed. VIA's latest batch, delivered only last fall, hauls cars at maximum speeds of 177 km/h - well below the anticipated pace of the higher-speed service.

The fact that Collenette can seriously discuss a huge injection of new spending on VIA is remarkable. For much of its history, the national passenger rail company's outlook has seemed uncertain at best. Created by Pierre Trudeau's government in 1978, VIA, by 1981, was cancelling routes to save money. When the Conservatives took power in 1984, many of those services were restored. But in early 1990, then-transport minister Benoît Bouchard eliminated 18 of 38 routes. Among those dropped was the historic southern transcontinental route through Calgary, leaving only the northern run through Edmonton. "They said that I was killing Canada," Bouchard recalls. The outcry reflected not just practical concerns over lost service, but also the enduring symbolism of trains in a country built around the "national dream" of coast-to-coast rail.

Twelve years later, Bouchard's hard-headed cost-cutting now looks like it might have been VIA's salvation. The federal subsidy poured into its operating costs then stood at $350 million; it now runs at about $170 million a year. And VIA's management knows that outlay can't rise. The government still requires some money-losing routes to be maintained as a matter of policy, including service from Jasper, Alta. to Prince Rupert, B.C., and from Winnipeg to Churchill, Man. But by and large, VIA trains need to carry enough passengers to pay their way - especially when it comes to adding new services.

The contrast between thriving VIA and its troubled U.S. counterpart, Amtrak, is striking. Facing a financial crisis, Amtrak got US$205 million in special funding from Congress last month to keep it running through the end of September. The situation turned still bleaker last week. Amtrak was forced to suspend 30 per cent of its service - including all its new high-speed trains - on its heavily travelled Boston-New York-Washington corridor, after finding cracks in a component meant to keep locomotives from swaying. (The locomotives are built in part by Montreal's Bombardier Corp.) Even before that setback, Amtrak's new president, David Gunn, the former head of the Toronto Transit Commission, was pleading for US$1.2 billion from Washington in the next fiscal year, more than twice the previous year's subsidy. One perennial problem: Amtrak has been forced to run money-losing, long-distance routes through key states to keep Congress from cutting off money. In other words, Washington still hasn't come to terms with the need to rationalize Amtrak in the way VIA was scaled back more than a decade ago.

Such cuts may not always be as unpopular as politicians fear. After weathering a two-week firestorm over the 1990 VIA cuts, Bouchard says he rarely faced criticism over the decision again. "People saw that we couldn't keep putting a huge subsidy into empty trains." As well, where there is real demand for rail service, new companies tend to pick up the slack when the big railways retreat. When it comes to tourist travel through some of Canada's best scenery, private railways from Rocky Mountaineer in the West to the Acadian Railway Co. in the East have sprung up.

Between those regional railways and VIA's national network, passenger rail in Canada is hardly endangered. By the end of next year, VIA expects to have 139 plush new passenger cars in service to go with its 21 new locomotives. Stations from Moncton to Prince Rupert have been spruced up. But all this will seem like small stuff if Collenette can persuade cabinet to embrace - and fund - his vision of faster trains. For VIA, it would mark its recovery from the days when passenger rail looked like a fading force on the Canadian landscape. For Collenette, it would be a fitting terminus for the abiding affection for trains that began in a kid's bedroom near a noisy London rail yard.

Maclean's August 26, 2002