CANADA

Cutting back Via

Ottawa sharply reduces rail services

BRIAN BERGMAN October 16 1989
CANADA

Cutting back Via

Ottawa sharply reduces rail services

BRIAN BERGMAN October 16 1989

Cutting back Via

CANADA

Ottawa sharply reduces rail services

Canadians had been well prepared for Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard’s decision last week on the future of Via Rail. For weeks, reports had circulated that the minister would call for dramatic reductions in Via Rail passenger services across the country in order to help reduce Ottawa’s $29-billion budget deficit. Then, early in the week, Bouchard announced that more than half of Via’s service will disappear by Jan. 15 and 2,761 of its 7,300 employees will lose their jobs. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that a royal commission will study all the options for passenger transportation in Canada. But, said Michael Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, Ont., which is losing two of its three daily Via trains, “What we are seeing is the slow suffocation of Via Rail. I think that by the mid-1990s the service will be history.”

Indeed, although Bouchard said that the reductions are the only way to save debt-ridden Via, his action led to expressions of outrage in the Commons and protests across the country. Said Opposition Leader John Turner: “They have turned the national dream into a national nightmare. The last spike has become the last straw.” And in the affected communities, the bitterness was apparent. “It is terrible news,” said Mayor Hector DiPersio of Sydney Mines, N.S. (population 8,500), which will lose its dayliner service to Halifax. “The worst of our fears has come true.” And in Courtenay, B.C. (population 10,000), a Vancouver Island community that will lose a train that has linked it to Victoria for 103 years, Mayor George Cochrane declared, “We are faced with a disaster.” Provincial and civic politicians in several centres, including Victoria and Sarnia, were considering taking legal action to keep the trains running.

Both Bouchard and Mulroney apparently anticipated the controversy. Said the Prime Minister: “It is generally acknowledged that when you cut anything in Canada, you get some heat.” Added Bouchard: “We can’t afford to put more billions and billions of dollars into a system that Canadians are using less and less.”

The trimmed-down Via still maintains a transcontinental service from Vancouver to Halifax and numerous regional routes, mainly in Central and Eastern Canada. But according

to Bouchard’s figures, the new 191-train system will require just $350 million in annual subsidies, compared with the $641 million required to keep Via’s 405 trains running now.

In fact, the reductions were not as severe as some experts had expected. One former Via executive, who was closely involved in planning the company’s future, told Maclean’s that,

even before last November’s federal election, senior government officials considered getting rid of all passenger rail services. He added that Transport Canada officials and several key ministers—including Bouchard, Finance Minister Michael Wilson and Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski—studied the feasibility of eliminating even the profitable routes in the populous central corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont. Said the executive: “They figured that people in the corridor had other ways to get around. Also, politically, they

could not see scrapping the service completely in the East and the West and keeping the corridor.”

Under that early plan, the government would have handed over the most remote

routes, where no other transportation is available, to Canadian National. Then, after Wilson’s April 26 budget announced that subsidies to Via would drop to $250 million by 1993, a series of reports predicted that Bouchard would cut all regional routes in Atlantic Canada and the West while selectively eliminating other lines in the central corridor. As a result, mayors from cities along several of the routes thought to be affected and members of the prorail lobby group Transport 2000 pressed Ottawa to reconsider its plans.

When the official announcement was made, it seemed that the government had listened sympathetically to some of the representations. In the plans released by Bouchard, the government had found another $100 million for Via subsidies: federal support for the company, he announced, will be cut only to $350 million by 1993. As well, several rail lines that were reported to be on the list for elimination remained intact—although on a reduced schedule. The daily Atlantic, which links Halifax and Montreal by way of Saint John, N.B., cutting through Maine, will not disappear entirely as had been widely anticipated: it will run three times a week. Said Saint John Mayor Elsie Wayne, who organized a Save Via conference in her city last month: “We have half a loaf, and we were supposed to get no bread at all. We are pleased they didn’t cut it totally. We have been able to prove to cabinet that there is a need for service.” Still, the cutbacks are considerable. Total Via mileage will be cut in half by Jan. 15 to about 9.5 million km annually from about 19 million km now. And while Via is expected to carry 6.8 million passengers this year, forecasts for the reduced runs 2 show a drop to 4.1 million in 1990,

1 climbing back to 4.4 million by 1993. ¡5 Behind those statistics is the likeli-

2 hood that the cuts will create real I hardships for some travellers, espe5 dally in rural communities where

services are disappearing entirely. — Said Nova Scotia’s DiPersio of the of the Halifax-Sydney dayliner: “For some—students, seniors, people using the regional medical facilities in Halifax—it was the only thing they could afford. We tried to tell the government how important this was to poorer regions of the country.”

But the individuals most directly affected by the cuts will be the 2,761 employees—more than a third of Via’s total workforce—who will be out of work three weeks after Christmas. According to Mulroney, Via will spend about $140 million in severance packages to cushion

the blow—averaging about $50,000 per layoff—a gesture that the Prime Minister described last week as “among the most generous anywhere.” But that did not resolve the concerns of Nicole Pelzmann, a divorced mother of four who has been a clerk with Via in Halifax for the past eight years. Pelzmann, who said that she is almost certain to lose her $500a-week job, added in an interview that she will be unable to pay the new mortgage on her house and fears that she may ultimately have to depend on welfare payments. Said Pelzmann: “I voted for Mulroney five years ago because he said he was going to put the romance back in the railroad. I won’t vote for him again.”

Despite the unpopularity of the measures, the government has maintained that action had to be taken to reduce the problems caused by a rail system that has received $4.5 billion in subsidies over the past eight years while ridership declined to 6.4 million from 7.8 million in that same period. And, although the cuts are expected to save the federal treasury $1 billion over the next five years, Bouchard is clearly looking for additional ways to reduce Ottawa’s support for the trains. He said last week that he would entertain proposals from private industry to take over some of the routes that survived the reductions.

In fact, Bouchard has already received at least one proposal for a private service, and another may be on his desk within several weeks. Indeed, the minister has already endorsed a plan by Toronto-based tour operator Sam Blyth to operate a luxury rail service from Toronto to Vancouver beginning next June. The three-day run will offer private suites in

specially built railcars equipped with showers, video monitors and cellular telephones. The average price of a first-class one-way ticket, meals and drinks included: $2,495. And Quebec’s Bombardier Inc. and Lavalin Inc. will present a joint proposal within six months for a high-speed service between Montreal and Toronto modelled on France’s 268-km/h trains. Ironically, one of Bombardier’s chief consultants promoting that proposed ser-

vice—estimated to cost between $2.5 billion and $3 billion—is Denis de Belleval, president of Via for almost two years until last May, when he resigned in protest against Bouchard’s planned cutbacks.

But critics, including Sarnia’s Bradley, accused Bouchard of placing too much emphasis on cost-saving and too little on investment in rail transportation. And Bradley echoed other opponents of the Via cutbacks when he dismissed the need for a royal commission that, according to Mulroney, will spend the next 18 months assessing Canada’s transportation requirements for the next century. Said Bradley:

“I think it is a way of evading their responsibility as a national government. The issues are on the table, and there is really not a need for a lot of further study.”

Bradley added that he and several other mayors may challenge the proposed cuts in court, contending that their environmental impact—the potential for more pollution from other, less energy-efficient vehicles replacing trains—has not been fully assessed. At the same time, B.C. Attorney General Stuart (Bud) Smith announced within hours of Bouchard’s statement last week that his province would contest the elimination of the daily two-car dayliner between Esquimalt and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The B.C. government contends that maintenance of the route was promised as a condition of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation in 1871 and that its termination would be unconstitutional.

Both history and the expected impact on communities across the country will likely be invoked again next week. Critics of Bouchard’s plan are due to appear before the first of a series of hearings that the Commons transportation committee plans to hold on the subject. But it is unlikely that they will have any affect. Bouchard said last week that he will not be influenced by the committee’s report. Still, if the hostile reaction to last week’s official announcement of cuts is any indication, his program for saving Via by cutting it in half faces a long and bumpy ride before it wins wide public acceptance.

BRIAN BERGMAN

LISA VAN DUSEP

GLEN ALLEN