COVER

DERAILING VIA

BUDGET CUTS MEAN THAT SOME TRAIN SERVICES WILL HAVE TO BE ELIMINATED

GLEN ALLEN August 21 1989
COVER

DERAILING VIA

BUDGET CUTS MEAN THAT SOME TRAIN SERVICES WILL HAVE TO BE ELIMINATED

GLEN ALLEN August 21 1989

Shortly after noon on a sunny Monday in July, The Atlantic sat quietly on Track 4 of Halifax’s downtown railway station as if gathering strength for the 21-hour journey through three provinces and one state that lay ahead. At 12:52 p.m., all passengers aboard, the engines throbbed and surged, and the train—one of two daily Via Rail passenger services that connect Atlantic Canada to Montreal—began to groan and creak its way slowly through the rail yards and surrounding suburbs. As the train bustled into the open countryside beyond, the chairs in the domed observation car began to fill with passengers who—like many Canadians this summer—talked not of the weather or the passing countryside but of trains, their rich and vivid past and their uncertain future as Ottawa prepares to cut back on service.

Akemi Suma, a tourist from Tokyo who was beginning a return train trip to Vancouver, said that she prefers Canadian trains to the highspeed “bullet trains” of her native land. “On Japanese trains you can’t see anything,” said the 24-year-old computer programmer. “This gives you a chance to talk to people.” Seated beside her was Grant Cogswell, an unemployed bricklayer from Sydney, N.S., who was travelling to Hamilton, Ont., to look for work. Cogswell, who said that he is a champion of passenger rail service, said that he also travelled by rail the last time he went to Central Canada seeking a job. “The train is the only way to go,” he said. “We can’t do without them. The train is an institution. It keeps us together—and we should be up in arms about losing it.”

Subsidies: In fact, since last spring, many Canadians have been expressing deep concern over the future of Via Rail Canada Inc., the government agency established in 1977 and turned into a Crown corporation in 1978. Via took over passenger rail service in Canada from Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP). In 1988, with revenue of more than $788 million, including federal subsidies, Via recorded a loss of almost $1.8 million.

Finance Minister Michael Wilson decreed in his April 26 budget that subsidies to Via— which amounted to $641 million in 1988— would be cut drastically. Under Wilson’s terms, the subsidies would drop to $250 million by 1993. Via executives drew up an operating plan for a rail system that would run on those lower subsidies, and delivered it to Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard, who is responsible for implementing the deficit-conscious government’s rail cutbacks (page 24).

Since June 30, Bouchard and his officials have been mulling over that report. Although copies of the plan have not been made public, some reports say that it recommends the abandonment of about half of Via’s existing services, including the daily transcontinental runs from Toronto to Vancouver, the daily train from Montreal to Halifax via Maine, and all 115 regional passenger trains across the country. In addition, Via would reduce the number of trains in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, the country’s busiest transportation route. And, if

the advance speculation is true, about half of Via’s workforce of 7,000 would face the loss of their jobs. But nine remote routes are on a protected list because they serve people in otherwise inaccessible or hard to reach communities (page 25).

Ironically, Ottawa announced its intention to cut Via subsidies at a time when Via officials were putting the final touches on an ambitious, $4-million study that includes a proposal for a new high-speed rail line that would whisk passengers between Montreal and Toronto, via Ottawa, in three hours. According to some reports, the service would cost $2.5 billion to build—and would actually reduce Via’s need for annual subsidies, because its share of the passenger market between Canada’s two largest cities would more than double.

But Ottawa appears almost certain to reject the proposed high-speed line. Wilson, the chief architect of the Tories’ deficit-reduction campaign, told Maclean ’s last week that he is convinced a high-speed train would be uneconomical and impractical. Declared the

finance minister: “We have other means of meeting the transportation needs of the country. A Cadillac system of a highspeed railway, relative to other combinations of transportation modes, would be difficult to support.”

Strategy: Meanwhile, the threat to Via has generated vocal protests by ordinary citizens, environmentalists, Via employees and politicians—including backbench Tory MPs. As well, earlier this month, 45 federal Liberal MPs, echoing a strategy used by the Conservatives when in 1981 the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau cut 20 per cent of Via’s rail system, toured the country by train, holding public hearings in selected communities. Among the arguments is that it is a mistake for Canada to turn its back on rail service at a time when companies in Japan and Western Europe are expanding their passenger rail service with high-technology, high-speed equipment (page 26).

Other rail enthusiasts are devising and promoting alternative uses for the Via network. Ontario travel company executive Sam Blyth, for one, has offered to buy the transcontinental service and convert it into a luxury train aimed at the “first-class traveller” (page 22). For its part, Transport 2000, the nonprofit transportation lobby and research organization based in Ottawa, last month released a 24-page “counterplan” for Via. Written by a former CN marketing executive, the plan argues that Via—saddled with outdated equipment and

OTHER COUNTRIES ARE EXPANDING THEIR PASSENGER RAIL SERVICES

forced to reimburse both CN and CP for use of their railbeds and crew—could be saved by introducing measures such as slashing management costs and buying modern equipment. Referring to the government’s policy on Via, the report concluded: “This is not a planned downsizing.

This is not a reorienting or restructuring of services.

This is simply abandonment.

Canadians deserve better than abandonment.”

Service: The train-travelling public has also complained about losing a service that many feel has been a sacred trust since transcontinental passenger service was inaugurated 102 years ago.

According to an Angus Reid Associates poll released this month, 59 per cent of Canadians oppose the government’s plan to reduce funding for Via, while 32 per cent supported the cuts. Ronald MacDonald, Liberal MP for Dartmouth, N.S., and a member of his party’s travelling task force, took The Atlantic from Moncton to Halifax early this month. Said MacDonald: “I don’t think the government was ready for the outcry, even in their own caucus.” Added Christopher Holloway, director of Transport 2000: “Public interest in this is just enormous. The last two months in this office have been like running an election cam-

paign. The phone has been ringing off the hook.”

Still, when the Liberal task force held a special hearing on the future of Via in Calgary last week, it drew an audience of two people. It

was an obvious manifestation of lack of interest that cannot have been missed by members of the deficit-conscious federal government. For his part, Bouchard refused to discuss Via in an interview with Maclean ’s. But since the April

budget, the minister has made the government’s position clear, saying that the country can no longer afford passenger rail service. Pointing out that fewer than five in 100 Canadians now use trains, Bouchard has noted that in its 12 years of existence Via has received more than $5 billion in subsidies while expenses have been rising year by year. As well, ridership has declined from its levels at the beginning of the decade. In 1988, Via carried 6.4 million passengers—up from 5.8 million in 1987 but still substantially less than the 7.8 million passengers seven years ago. In the same period, the operating subsidy rose to 40 cents for every passenger mile from 22 cents in 1981.

Surgery: In May, faced with the job of performing major financial surgery on the troubled service, Bouchard demanded a new five-year business plan from Via president Ronald Lawless. The new head of Via had just replaced Denis de Belleval, president for almost two years, who resigned in the wake of the April budget, saying that “our position had become untenable.” Now, if the government approves service cutbacks along the lines of the latest reports, Bouchard will have the unenviable task of seeing that they are imposed. Already, he has ruled out public hearings on the future of Via and has indicated that cuts could be made by order-in-council, bypassing Parliament in the same manner as Trudeau’s government cut Via services eight years ago. Ottawa insiders say that the cuts are likely to be made beginning next January.

And despite the continuing, aggressive lobby campaign to save Via, some experts say that Canada no longer needs passenger rail service. Historian A. A. den Otter, for one, of Memorial University in St. John’s and a specialist in railway history, said that Canadians’ nostalgic attachment to rail travel is based largely on the myth that the railway created their national identity. But, he said, other elements were more important to nation-building, among them public policy on tariffs and trade and the creation of institutions like the CBC. “You don’t create a country with a technology,” den Otter said. “A technology is a substance and can be removed. But culture can’t.” Den Otter added that passenger rail service has in fact become almost obsolete. “Most small communities have been hooked up by highways, and there are still buses,” he said.

For his part, Douglas Wurtele, who retired last year as a senior adviser in the federal-

transport department, said that he recognizes the romance of the railway and shares in the widespread nostalgia. In 1944, Wurtele, then a veteran fighter pilot, returned home from his tour of duty in the Second World War. When Wurtele’s troopship landed in Montreal, he says that the hoot of a waiting train’s whistle reminded him and his companions that they were finally home. “It was a most extraordinary experience,” said Wurtele. “These were hardened men, but they all had tears in their eyes. Something about that sound: this was home, this was Canada.” But Wurtele says that Via’s trains no longer have a place in a modern Canadian transportation system. “Every time somebody gets on a train,” he said, “it costs the government $80. How many people would take the train if they had to pay the full fare? We have to look ahead, not backwards.”

But advocates of train service say that a

forward-looking government would in fact modernize and expand rail service in Canada, as a relatively clean and cost-efficient alternative to car travel. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, for one, says that the loss of Via service will put more pressure on the Trans-Canada Highway through his province. For the most part, the highway is only two lanes wide from Quebec to the Nova Scotia border and already carries 40 per cent more traffic than it was designed to handle. And Greg Wood, director of the Canadian Institute of Guided Ground Transportation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said that fuel costs may rise drastically in the future. As a result, he added, any decision to cut passenger service when energy costs are relatively low is one made “in a little bit of a fool’s paradise.”

Moreover, some Via supporters say that the increase in passengers in 1988 over 1987 indicates that Canadians have by no means abandoned train travel. The Atlantic route, for one, carried 267,000 people last year, compared with 249,000 in 1987. And Elsie Wayne, mayor of Saint John, N.B., and a vocal supporter of passenger rail service, says that those figures provide the best argument yet that train service should be protected—especially in light of previous comments by senior Tory officials. After the Conservatives came to power in 1984, they restored some routes slashed by the Liberals in 1981. But at the time, thenTransport Minister Donald Mazankowsi told Via’s supporters to “use it or lose it.” Now, Wayne says that increased use of The Atlantic, for instance, shows that Canadians have lived up to their half of the bargain. Declared the mayor: “We have already exceeded the target set by the government.”

Sights: Indeed, as The Atlantic that left Halifax on that sunny Monday in late July reached the Montreal South Shore suburb of St-Lambert at 8:05 a.m. on the following Tuesday—only five minutes behind schedule—all of the passenger space, except for five sleeper rooms, was taken. And as the train rolled slowly toward the sunlit skyline of the city across the St. Lawrence River, travellers filled up the rear observation car once again to look at the sights.

One such traveller was first-time Atlantic passenger Richard Hoskin, a teacher from Kingston, Ont., enjoying his summer vacation. Hoskin and his sons Andrew, 8, and Christopher, 10, had taken the train from Kingston to Halifax and were now on the return trip home. “It’s a leisurely way to see the country,” explained Hoskin. “It is also a good way to spend time with each other.” Then he said, “If it weren’t for the railways, Canada wouldn’t be what it is.” Critics of Via’s costs argue that, despite its undisputed importance in building the country, the passenger train has outlived its usefulness. But the opponents of passenger rail cutbacks are gathering steam, and they will undoubtedly make Via’s future an item of paramount importance on the government’s fall agenda.

GLEN ALLEN with correspondents reports