CANADA

You can’t get there from here

VIA Rail drops 15 runs to drive another spike through the national dream

David Folster August 10 1981
CANADA

You can’t get there from here

VIA Rail drops 15 runs to drive another spike through the national dream

David Folster August 10 1981

You can’t get there from here

CANADA

VIA Rail drops 15 runs to drive another spike through the national dream

David Folster

Twilight was gathering quickly as VIA Rail’s Montreal-bound Atlantic Limited slipped into McAdam, N.B., one evening last week. McAdam is an old railway town whose crowning glory is a stone station built in the early 1900s, and the scene—lights glowing inside the old-fashioned waiting room, a few people chatting in the ovals cast by the metal-shaded lamps along the platform outside—was reminiscent of an old Norman Rockwell illustration. But the conversation was pointedly up-todate: “This train right now is paying for itself,” said conductor Freddie Green. “There’s no damn way it isn’t.” Added another man, “It’s just another Upper Canadian ripoff of the Maritime provinces.”

Variations on those sentiments were being heard in many parts of Canada last week after the federal minister of transport, Jean-Luc Pepin, finally made official what had been rumored for weeks—that, in November, 15 of VIA Rail’s passenger trains will be stopped in their tracks and six others will have their schedules reduced. In addition to the Atlantic Limited, between Halifax and Montreal, the trains to be dropped include one of two transcontinental runs west of Winnipeg (via Edmonton to Vancouver), daily services between Edmonton and Drumheller, Alta., Regina and Prince Albert, Sask., and Montreal to Ottawa, and separate commuter trains running from Havelock, Barrie and Stouffville, Ont., into Toronto. The

cuts will save about $100 million over the next three years, and Pepin said the money would be used to revitalize the VIA system, notably by investing in new LRC (light, rapid, comfortable) trains. But critics were bitter about the abrupt cancellations, and some saw them as new evidence that the transport department doesn’t have the stomach to persevere with the five-year-old VIA concept—despite the fact that last year VIA carried 41-per-cent more passengers

than Canadian National and Canadian Pacific combined had in 1976. “I hope nobody ever revitalizes me in this way,” sarcastically declared Nicholas Vincent, executive director of the public transportation lobby group, Transport 2000. To be sure, some of the cancellations appeared more justified than others. On the semiweekly “mini-train” running between Winnipeg and Armstrong, in Northern Ontario, for example, ridership is so low that it costs

taxpayers $8.73 per passenger mile in subsidies (as opposed to nine cents on the Montreal-Toronto route). Pepin explained the transcontinental cuts on the basis that those routes were losing $160 million to $170 million a year—nearly half the VIA deficit. VIA also claims to be losing $1.5 million a year on the Prince Albert-to-Regina train because, as former Prince Albert alderman Lee Gisi admits, “nobody uses it.” Despite efforts in the past year to promote the line, the railway has simply been beaten by a bus service that is faster, cheaper and more convenient. By contrast, however, VIA did little to improve or promote its Drumheller-to-Edmonton run—even though the competing bus trip takes more than twice as long. Drumheller station agent Keith Meise, a 19-year railway veteran, blames mismanagement and a skimpy budget for the train’s failure. Last year, when the railway asked him to get The Drumheller Mail to run VIA ads free, Meise says he was “too embarrassed” to make the request.

Some of VlA’s problems may be due to its continuing status as a dependent orphan of government instead of an autonomous Crown corporation like Air

Canada. That has constrained both its budgeting processes and its decisionmaking abilities. For example, for using rail beds, stations, equipment and other facilities belonging to CN and CP, VIA receives 12 “estimate” bills a year from each of the two companies, followed by “catch-up” bills. Last year’s catch-up bill from CN was about $13 million. Even VIA President Frank Roberts concedes that “the cost system is an impossible situation.” Ontario Liberal MP Keith Penner, who serves on the House standing committee on transport, charges

that in fact CN and CP are billing for equipment and materials that they must use themselves anyway. In 1980 VIA paid the two railways $356 million. The government, Penner asserts, is playing caboose to CN and CP’s engine. “Let it do the right thing and take on the two railroads.”

Whatever the reasons for VIA’s annual deficit, Pepin decided to act quickly to hold it to, as he said, “moderate” levels. So he cancelled or adjusted the routes without the usual round of Canadian Transport Commission hearings. That, too, angered suddenly derailed citizens and led to Pepin’s epi-

thetical designation as a “dictator.” But in VIA’s Montreal headquarters, Roberts boomed above some lower-echelon doom and gloom and declared that “this week’s decision is the beginning of the future, not the beginning of the end.” Roberts perceives “a commitment” from Pepin to produce an autonomyyielding VIA Rail act, though he isn’t sure when, and he is also thrilled with the minister’s promise to provide $1 billion over the next five years to buy new equipment. A lot of that money will be spent on LRC trains—10 units have already been ordered from Quebec’s MLWBombardier shops and are now being tested in the Quebec City-Windsor, Ont., corridor. More units will eventually be ordered for use in Western and Atlantic Canada too. Roberts even talks of the day when trains will speed from Montreal to Ottawa in an hour, to Toronto in just over 2*/2 hours—although a track system still geared to slower freight trains makes that seem an elusive dream for some time yet.

Some VIA employees are much less optimistic about its future—and not only the up-to-1,600 railway workers who may be affected by the cuts. “The minister has systematically set out to destroy the credibility of VIA rail,” grumbled one self-styled Young Turk at headquarters last week. This official believes the transport department is being heavily influenced by a strong bus lobby. Others blame Transport’s continuing love affair with air (and the department’s reputation as the “ministry of aviation”) for some of VIA’s problems.

Across the country last week, a great huff of protest ensued from Pepin’s announcement. In Edmonton, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce warned that the cuts would heighten western alienation. Saint John, N.B., Mayor Robert Lockhart, meanwhile, had plans to lead a Maritime delegation to Ottawa. And in Toronto, 200 commuters showed up at Union Station to demonstrate and chant “Save our trains.” More than any other public transport mode, rail travel is obviously still taken as a personal right by many Canadians, and any curtailment is not easily countenanced —neither by the hunters, trappers and Ojibway Indians who use Northern Ontario’s one-coach, one-baggage-car mini-train nor by the Atlantic Limited’s passengers and the folk who stood on the platform in McAdam last week. Conductor Green, reflecting the feelings of many across the country about the perfunctory cancellations, declared: “They only put this train on two years ago. Why didn’t they give it a show?”

Ian Anderson

Anne Beirne

Fred Blazer