Via Rail's Holiday Blues
by Willem Klumpenhouwer
Thursday, December 29, 2022
This is a cross-post of an opinion piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail entitled "Via Rail's holiday meltdown shows Canada's railway policy has utterly failed us". You can read the original piece here.
This past holiday weekend, when a tree fell on Train 55 and a freight train derailment shut down all train traffic between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, passengers travelling to see their friends and families were stuck on the tracks for hours on end, with no working bathrooms and little information. The sense of frustration from passengers was palpable.
It's easy to point fingers at the wintery chaos alone. But winter will continue to happen, and extreme weather events like these are only going to get more frequent. Besides, of all the ways to get around, train travel should be the most insulated from the blowing snow, low visibility and slippery conditions. Something bigger is at play here.
What we saw over Christmas and Boxing Day was a striking example of how our country's railway policy has failed us.
Most transport systems involve two groups: one group owns, maintains and schedules the infrastructure, and the other group is responsible for operating the actual transport service. Airports are built and maintained separately from the airlines that use them. Highways are the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments, and are used by motorists, freight companies and public transportation systems.
This isn't the case with railways in Canada. Instead, freight-shipping railway companies both own the tracks and run their trains on them. Most of the useful city-to-city railway tracks are owned by two companies: Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). Other companies, such as Via Rail, act essentially as guests; they work out arrangements to run their trains whenever and wherever is feasible for the track owner, which also runs its own, freight-carrying trains.
For most of its network, Via Rail runs on CN-owned track. This means it is beholden to CN-employed dispatchers, uses track maintained to CN standards and must contend with CN freight trains along its journey.
This creates a baked-in conflict of interest. CN and CP are private, shareholder-beholden freight transport companies. They plan and operate their networks with a focus on making money by moving as many goods as cheaply as possible. Compared with passenger carriers such as Via Rail, CN and CP can be more tolerant of delays and push the limits of the infrastructure. They can rely on a sparser, less resilient network instead of having options to route trains around incidents. After all, goods don't suffer the same way as passengers do when delays happen.
Communication also suffers in our current environment. When something like a train derailment happens, the chain of communication from CN to Via Rail and Via Rail to its customers is lacking, but without clear and public agreements it's hard for us to know where this communications breakdown occurred and who is responsible. Ultimately, it's passengers who are left in the dark.
This conflict isn't only evident during extreme events: data show that on-route operational delays are an everyday occurrence for Via Rail. It knows it too - its 2016-2020 corporate plan doesn't mince words: "No intercity passenger rail carrier among the G7 countries (and almost none in the G20), is burdened with the constraints and barriers faced by Via Rail," the company states, concluding that "the current relationship with freight rail operators no longer works as Via Rail cannot control the fundamentals required to operate efficiently in a commercial manner in a competitive environment."
While Via Rail is not blameless in some of its planning and operational choices, it's clear that it is negatively affected by the current model of train travel ownership. Train travel is a vital part of our quest to reduce carbon emissions, and to rely on these forms of transportation, something has to change.
One approach is to build new, separate railway networks focused only on passenger travel. This is Via Rail's goal with its proposed High Frequency Rail between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.
But carving out new railway systems is expensive, and in established, dense urban areas nearly impossible to create. Even the “new” route proposed by Via Rail mainly uses repurposed or abandoned railway corridors.
To get us all the way, we must change the way railways are governed and managed in Canada. We can look to places like the Netherlands, where one organization is responsible for building, maintaining and scheduling use of the track while other companies run the trains that carry the passengers.
This allows both private and public railway operators to thrive, and for the negotiation between these groups to happen on a level playing field, not at the whim of a large for-profit company. Contracts establish clear lines of communication for riders and ensure that freight and passenger rail is scheduled to work harmoniously together. Scenario planning brings stakeholders together to decide how to respond to major incidents.
Bolstering our railway network would also be easier, as railway corridors would be considered a public good instead of a private asset. When more capacity is needed between Toronto and Montreal, the government can help fund the expansion without effectively giving money directly to CN.
This would require bold action by the federal government and the political will to change the status quo, something that would certainly face stiff opposition from our two giant rail carriers. But Canadian railway companies have benefited greatly over their long histories from public funds, and sometimes change is necessary for the common good.
After a snowstorm, I find a sense of clarity and the possibility of a fresh start. Our rail system is designed to move freight across the entire country, but it struggles to get people safely and efficiently between the highest density cities over a few hundred kilometres. This is a policy failure. Let's use this storm to get Canada's railways back on track.