Why you can’t get there from here

David Thomas November 9 1981

Why you can’t get there from here

David Thomas November 9 1981

Why you can’t get there from here


David Thomas

It was as if all the railway whistles in the land were turned up full and orchestrated into a single wounded shriek. From the smallest way station to the floor of the House of Commons, thousands of Canadians protested this month’s Via Rail cuts. And yet, as impenetrable as a rockslide on the tracks, sat Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin, giving forth the same old song: unless Canadians make greater use of what is left of their once-glorious passenger service, even more of it will be sidetracked to oblivion.

For many riders, Pepin’s Kafkaesque scenario is scripted for the ruin of rail travel: under his “revitalized” Via Rail service, to go into effect Nov. 15, for example, Frederictonians who had been used to a pleasant overnight ride to Montreal will be routed via Saint John and Moncton. By the time they reach Campbellton, N.B.—8V2 hours and 560 km later—they will be farther away from their Montreal destination than when they were sitting at the platform in Fredericton.

In his pre-emptory amputation of one-fifth of Via’s network, Pepin has driven a ruinous spike into the ties that bind Canada to a pair of cherished traditions: rail passenger service and democratic decision making. The minister was as much assailed last week for his bypassing of Parliament and the normal regulatory process as he was for eliminating 15 trains and downgrading six others used by more than a million Canadians. At the same time, there was evidence that Pepin and the Liberal government were swayed by anti-train bus operators.

That was not surprising. Canada’s senior government overseer of passenger train policy was, until recently, a prominent bus industry lobbyist. Meanwhile, two prairie towns went to court to challenge the legality of Pepin’s train cuts, but the greater issue of parliamentary control continued to rankle. In the end, it became obvious that Pepin, unilaterally, could wipe out the entire Via system, since it has never been protected by legislation.

The protesters who converged on Ottawa last week aboard condemned trains quickly ran into the minister’s refusal to permit Via to renew its roster of outmoded rolling stock without

wiping out much of its existing service. Via’s haste to soften the blow by rushing its first modern LRC trains into scheduled service resulted in added humiliation when they had to be withdrawn temporarily at the last minute. And, to avoid further embarrassment, Via management and Pepin tried to keep quiet an error in the calculation of the losses used to justify the train withdrawals. It seemed to many to be a backward way of revitalizing a railway.

For his part, Via President Frank Roberts had already been cast in the uncomfortable role of a sincere but ineffectual champion of passenger trains unable to stand up to an anti-rail government. Now there is a risk of adding an aura of incompetence to Via’s troubled image. When Pepin and an acquiescent Via management first announced the train cuts in July, they cited overwhelming losses as the principal reason. But Maclean's has discovered that on the condemned run from Havelock, Ont., to Toronto, for example, the declared annual loss of $833,000 was exaggerated by $109,000. Via neglected to count cash fares paid on board the train by the more than 300 passengers who

use it each day. Though aware of the discrepancy, neither Pepin nor Roberts has publicly corrected it. Roberts even denies there was a mistake.

That miscalculation, however, may go down as a minor blunder beside the greater decisions that threaten to sidetrack Via’s once-promising efforts to introduce a new golden age of passenger trains. There are halfhearted protestations to the contrary, but government policy is clearly to withdraw trains from the choice of many travellers. That, in turn, will force more and more Canadians to turn to the airlines— where increasingly high fares make travel costs prohibitive for all but the affluent and expense-account voyagers. Nor is bus travel always an acceptable alternative. The vehicles are often crowded, dirty and strike-bound.

During his years in the political wilderness, Pepin was a board member of Power Corporation when it owned Voyageur bus lines. And in February the minister returned the favor by appointing as his director of rail passenger administration former Voyageur vice-president Robert Tittley. Now the top public servant entrusted with

passenger trains, Tittley was on the board of directors of the bus lobby’s Canadian Motor Coach Association and made representations to the government decrying competition from the trains. “I was, when I was there, an advocate of the bus industry position, of course,” acknowledges Tittley. But he says he can still fairly adjudicate between the interests of trains and buses. “There is enough transportation need in Canada to have both modes operate at their optimum potential —and I profoundly believe that,” Tittley declares.

Still, Via is not permitted to set fares below those of bus operators on competing routes. Says Tittley: “The policy of the ministry of transport is to ensure that all modes of transport are allowed to flourish within their respective markets without one having a detrimental effect on the other.” In practice that means Pepin vetoes Via fares below those of the buses. Pepin himself has such a high opinion of motor coaches that he says there has been a “bus revolution” as significant as that in electronics. He justifies his lack of enthusiasm for investing in better train ser-

vice by saying that the public does not want trains and that rail travel is falling behind everywhere in the world.

There are, however, facts that belie that analysis. Since Via took over intercity passenger trains from CN and CP in 1977, revenue passengers have increased by 41 per cent to 6.8 million in 1980. Pepin’s pessimism, however, will be self-fulfilling: more than one million of those Via clients are losing their trains in his announced cuts. In the United States, where Via’s equivalent, Amtrak, is now 10 years old, passenger traffic has increased to 21.2 million from 16 million since 1972. And, contrary to the minister’s suggestion that passenger trains are in worldwide decline, massive investments in modernization are under way in other countries. Great Britain is developing its APT (Ad-

spare parts, Via had to retreat at the last minute. But even when they are operating on a daily schedule between Quebec City and Windsor, the LRCs will perform far below their potential. The LRC is constructed to travel at 200 km/h over conventional track, but, since they must share the Canadian rails with freight trains, and because of the number of level crossings on the route, their speed will be held to a maximum of 150 km/h. No faster than the existing Montreal-Toronto Turbo train, the LRCs are disorienting in the smoothness of their ride. Sensors in each car cause the train to tilt into curves, thus counteracting centrifugal forces acting on passengers. As a result, during trial runs passengers, who were used to the bumps and grinds of conventional equipment, consistently underestimated the LRCs’ ac-

to a band of central Canada where Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals have their greatest electoral strength.

Pepin, cochairman of the 1978 Task Force on Canadian Unity, acknowledges the divisive effect of his train cuts. “I know that this is one of the difficulties we have now, that Westerners and Maritimers see the LRCs going into Ontario and Quebec and they say, ‘What’s in it for us?’ ” he acknowledges. “I hope to be able to live with it for a couple of years and demonstrate that the rationalization we are doing is very much in the interest of the unity of the country.” Pepin claims that LRCs will be introduced to the Maritimes and Western Canada “within two or three years.” He says the service will be paid for with money that Via will recover from the

vanced Passenger Train), and in September France inaugurated the 260 km/h TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) between Paris and Lyon over double tracks exclusively dedicated to its use. In the process, the country’s domestic airline, Air Inter, lost 45 per cent of its clientele between the two cities.

Canada, too, is at the forefront of modern, acronym-ridden train technology. Bombardier Inc.’s sleek LRC (Light, Rapid, Comfortable) is already in intermittent service between Montreal and Toronto, nearly a year after the first two LRCs entered Amtrak service between Boston and New York. Via has three LRCs in hand, with seven more trains to be delivered before January. The LRCs were to be assigned regular slots in Oct. 25’s winter timetable, but, because maintenance crews were untrained and had inadequate stocks of

tual speed. Train interiors are aircraftinspired, though spacious, and each car includes a washroom large enough for wheelchair travellers.

The ostensible reason for the cuts is to permit Via to use $100 million now budgeted for train operations for the acquisition of more LRCs. In practice, that means cutting out service in the Maritimes and the West and in the remoter regions of Central Canada to upgrade service in the so-called corridor between Quebec City and Windsor. The corridor already enjoys the best train, bus, highway and air service in the country. And the Pepin action is understandably interpreted in other areas as a sacrifice of regional interests for the benefit of Quebec and Ontario. By design or coincidence, most of the cuts occur in regions represented by opposition MPs—while the LRCs are assigned

train eliminations and from efficiencies^ achieved by the LRCs in the high-density2 corridor. But in 1977 the Liberal gov-^ ernment made a similar commitment—10 they promised Maritimers LRCs by 1980. “I think we are less gullible the second time around,” says John Pearce, Atlantic regional president of Transport 2000, the train lobby that organized last week’s “Viva Via” protest ride to Ottawa. Pearce contends that the government is intentionally erasing the Maritime interconnections to chase people away from the trains. “They are destroying the network, and I don’t think they have any intention of bringing it back,” he insists.

That lament would be understood by Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford. The premier periodically agitates for restoration of passenger rail service in his province, speculating wistfully

about fast, electric trains powered by Labrador’s electricity. A gruelling 14hour bus ride is the only regular link between St. John’s and Port-auxBasques since the withdrawal in 1968 of the legendary, narrow-gauge Newfie Bullet. (That name was bestowed by wartime servicemen; Newfoundlanders called the train the Foreign Express, since it met the ferry from Nova Scotia.) Joining the Bullet in the great roundhouse in the sky will be the Halifax-to-Montreal Atlantic, a train that had to run second sections last Christmas because of the holiday demand. “I don’t know why they are making these cuts a month and a half before their busiest season,” says Fredericton librarian Greg Blake, who uses the train several times a year to visit his mother in Montreal.

Another New Brunswick train that is being killed is the MonctonEdmundston dayliner service, which stops at Chipman, a village of 2,000. “I wouldn’t care so much if we had bus service or something,” says Mayor Murray Doherty.

“But we haven’t got a cursed thing.” Quebec is losing “le petit train du Nord” from Montreal to Mont Laurier, which carried generations of skiers to Laurentian slopes. Via trains used by hundreds of commuters in Montreal and Toronto are to be discontinued, but not until November,

1982, allowing enough time for provincial governments to take them over.

At the focus of Western Canadian anger is the loss of the Super Continental, which, eastbound, travels from Vancouver to Montreal via Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Ottawa. The remaining transcontinental, the Canadian, travels the southern route through Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Toronto. The Super Continental is to be partially replaced by daytime intercity trains linking Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton with a thriceweekly service between Edmonton, Jasper and Prince Rupert. Jasper, particularly, is worried by the potential loss of tourists—including thousands of Japanese for whom a train trip through the Canadian Rockies has become a national favorite.

But the transcontinentals are expensive tourist attractions and, as last week’s protest trains inadvertently demonstrated, are often used for rela-

tively short trips by nonholidaying Canadians. Only one of the 30 Viva Via protest riders who boarded the Super Continental in Vancouver travelled the distance to Ottawa. The others detrained 115 km down the line and returned home by bus. As long-distance transportation, the train is clearly for pleasure, not speed: New Democrat MP Les Benjamin compared timetables and discovered that transcontinental service averaged 47 m.p.h. in 1882 and 30 m.p.h. today. It is the smaller communities along the Canadian National mainline that will be hurt most and fear that the daytime services replacing the Super Continental are preludes to total abandonment.

Some Transport 2000 members even harbor a deep distrust of the government’s reasons for creating Via in the

first place. More surprisingly, some transport department and Via management employees worry that Via’s ultimate purpose is not to improve train service but to serve as the vehicle for its destruction. When passenger train operation was a legal responsibility of the railways, under the regulation of the Canadian Transport Commission, hearings were necessary before any line could be abandoned. In fact, the transport commission once ruled that the routes to disappear Nov. 15 should be maintained. But since Via’s creation, the transport minister has the unfettered power of a child over his model train set, rearranging the layout and shutting down lines with omnipotent abandon. And, because Via was not created by Parliament and is nothing more than a Crown corporation operating trains on contract from the trans-

port department, Pepin could—in the extreme—wipe out the entire railway as swiftly as he did the doomed trains.

Roberts himself is an enthusiastic, completely bilingual railwayman from Quebec City. His personal enthusiasm for passenger trains is evident, and he has encouraged ambitious—though technologically realistic—planning of a modern train system. But Via’s tenuous existence keeps it in constant jeopardy. Roberts wants the government to present a Via bill to Parliament, where the role, funding and future of passenger services could be debated and protected by law. Via’s current paper status is of questioned legitimacy and Parliament’s watchdog Joint Committee on Regulations and Other Statutory Instruments has been pressing Pepin all year to introduce legislation to give proper legal status to Via. At first, Pepin claimed that legislation was being prepared. But when he was asked to set a date for its introduction, the minister replied, “There does not appear to be an immediate requirement for a Via Rail Canada Act.”

The standing committee, however, noted that Via’s creation in 1977 by means of a simple department of transport spending vote allows the government to bypass the public hearing process. That, said the committee, is a usurpation of the power of Parliament. In June, the joint Senate-Commons committee reported: “Many important matters have been effectively foreclosed from Parliament’s debate and disposition by the extensive and pre-emptive executive action that has already been taken.” A month later, Pepin made his latest strike against the rail network. He pulled trains out of service while Parliament was in summer recess and unable to riposte.

Instead of waning in the time since, resentment accumulated, and last week opposition politicians subjected Pepin to a rare parliamentary barrage just after he had been presented with a Transport 2000 pro-trains petition signed by 55,000 Canadians. All but one of Monday’s Commons questions pertained to Via and on Thursday parliamentary committee legal adviser Graham Eglington advised that Pepin’s Aug. 6 order-in-council, dictating the cuts, is without force because it was not duly registered in The Canada Gazette. The minister, who had affirmed a week

earlier that there was not “a shadow of a doubt that we are legitimate,” backed off by blaming his staff. “I was so busy with the contents that I assumed the rules and regulations were being followed,” Pepin said. “Unless you have reason to doubt, you trust your lawyers.”

It is partly on that technicality that the Saskatchewan towns of Melville and Watrous are basing their attempts to have a Saskatchewan court nullify Pepin’s order. Conservative MP Sinclair Stevens claims Pepin’s improper procedure invalidates layoff notices to 1,600 workers whose jobs disappear with the trains and that their three-month notice would have to be reissued.

More legal tribulations may be in the works in Maine, where some northern communities depend on the Atlantic line that crosses through the state on its way from New Brunswick to Quebec. The U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission is considering whether or not to hold hearings on the Atlantic’s abandonment. Public hearings in the United States would be an embarrassing irony for Pepin, who has refused such a forum to Canadians. The only public soundings were taken by the Conservatives during unofficial hearings in 13 cities in August and September. Their report, released last Friday, said that there is evidence Via ridership has increased by up to 20 per cent in the past 12 months. (Via officials refused to release their statistics for 1981.) The government’s methods, concluded the Conservative report,

“constitute a dangerous precedent for the further emasculation of Canada’s transportation services.”

In an unexpected move last week, the Canadian Railway Labor Association filed a request that the Canadian Transport Commission order CN and CP to restore the passenger services they handed over to Via in 1977 and which are now being dropped. That tactic has the support of Conservative MP and former transport minister Don Mazenkowski. “There is a residual statutory obligation of CN and CP to provide rail services vacated by Via,” says Mazenkowski. The desperate political and legal manoeuvring to save the trains served above all to emphasize Via’s own statutory vulnerability.

Via’s president wants his railway protected by legislation that would give passenger trains a legal priority over freights and force CN and CP to stick to

quoted prices when submitting their bills to Via for the use of tracks and crews. For CN and CP, passenger traffic has moved from loss to profit under Via, since they are permitted to include a profit in their bills to Via. Worse, from Roberts’ viewpoint, only the government may see the itemized statements: “It is a horrible situation when we don’t know for what we are spending twothirds of our money,” he argues.

Last year, Via paid CP $66 million and CN $290 million for running Via’s trains. That is in addition to the $65 million Via paid to the two railways for old locomotives and cars, which an unpublished government study said in 1975 were worth “precious little” and which Roberts calls “old crocks.” By contrast,

Amtrak reimburses the private railways for their actual expenses but does not pay them a profit. Amtrak’s cost to the U.S. taxpayer last year was $881 million compared to Via’s $414 million. While Via’s subsidy is actually rising this year to $500 million, President Ronald Reagan and Congress cut Amtrak’s subsidy to $735 million for 1981, forcing Amtrak to wipe out 10 per cent of its system.

Via has plans to revive railway stations as thriving downtown transportation centres. Among the first to be renovated into inter-modal train and bus terminals will be the old but elegant Quebec stations in Lévis, Trois-Rivières and Quebec City and, if an agreement is signed with Saskatchewan, Regina.

Roberts has also asked Via planners

to design new transcontinental trains with bi-level sleeping cars. But the most alluring of his plans is a previously secret project to give Via its own tracks. Roberts wants an exclusive passenger right of way from Quebec City to Windsor using rights of way which, for the most part, already exist as lightly used freight lines. The passenger corridor would use CP’s north shore line from Quebec City to Trois-Rivières and Montreal, then pass through CN’s tunnel under Mount Royal to skirt the marooned Mirabel International Airport en route to Ottawa via Hawkesbury. From Ottawa, passenger trains would run directly to Kingston. There the tracks would parallel freight lines into Toronto and beyond to London and Windsor. If grade crossings were eliminated, the LRCs could attain their 200 km/h operating speed, reducing travel time between Montreal and Ottawa to one hour from the current two hours, 20 minutes. Eventually, the system could be electrified.

Cost estimates have not been made, but a recent Queen’s University study says a similar Montreal-Toronto diesel route could be set up for $1 billion. An electrified system would cost $1.7 billion, but would be cheaper in the long run. The whole thing, Roberts says, “could be in place 10 years after the decision.” Pepin, however, exhibits neither haste nor interest. 0Says the minister: “The LRC swas built to accommodate Siitself to the sort of lines we “have now. That, apparently, ois the beauty of it and, as xfar as I know, there is no project now to have a track for freight and another for passengers.” The minister dismisses arguments that vast sums of money were spent on highways and useless airports—including the $375-million Mirabel—and that rail should now have a fair share. “Mirabel has been found to be a mistake, all right. Are we going to repeat the same mistakes everywhere because we have made one?” Pepin asks.

Trains clearly do not have a highball on Pepin’s tracks to the future. Although he concedes that he can be “accused of being very undemocratic” in unilaterally cutting back passenger service, in this case rule by fiat does not make the trains run on time.

With files from Anne Beirne, Carol Bruman, David Folster, Malcolm Gray, Randolph Joyce, Gordon Legge, William Lowther and Julie Van Dusen.