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Transport Minister Chuck Strahl speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 3, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)
Transport Minister Chuck Strahl speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 3, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

Romanticism shields 'outrageous' Via Rail subsidies: ex-Tory minister Add to ...

A former Conservative transport minister says taxpayer subsidies for Via Rail are at “outrageous” levels, yet federal politicians don’t want to challenge the public’s romantic attachment to train travel.

Chuck Strahl, who was federal transport minister until he retired from politics before the 2011 election, says VIA Rail is very popular with those who use it in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. However, Mr. Strahl says, there’s rarely a full discussion of the merits of subsidizing rail travel.

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“The well-to-do business traveller is being heavily subsidized by the waitress working two shifts at McDonald’s because somebody has to subsidize it to make it work,” he said. “But at least it’s being used, and I think that’s the rationale why it doesn’t get hatcheted.”

That, and politics, he said. “Train travel in Canada has this romantic notion that if we all just rode the rails, all of our problems will just disappear,” he said.

Mr. Strahl made his comments in an interview after a Globe and Mail report showing his former department, Transport Canada, circulated a range of options this year for privatizing parts of Via Rail’s service.

The options were focused on the Western routes, and suggested privatizing the Canadian line between Toronto and Vancouver, or only the Jasper-Vancouver leg, or selling off its deluxe cars and luxury offerings aimed at the tourism market.

This isn’t the first time VIA Rail has faced budget cuts. In 1990, Ottawa slashed its funding from $600-million to $350-million. The ensuing cuts to service saw ridership drop from more than six million a year in 1989 to less than four million the next year. Since then, annual ridership has stabilized at around 3.5-million to four million. Via Rail received $527.2-million in 2010-11, which included short-term stimulus money for capital repairs. So far, the government has only approved $306.5-million for the current year.

NDP transport critic Olivia Chow says she believes the government is still actively looking at selling off parts of VIA, a move she predicts would hurt the remaining services. She said Canada is out of step with other G20 nations, which are investing heavily in high-speed rail while Ottawa cuts spending to Via Rail.

“This is the time when we need to invest heavily in rail services,” said Ms. Chow, who regularly uses VIA Rail to travel between Toronto and Ottawa. Mr. Strahl’s claim that low-income Canadians are subsidizing rich train travellers shows Conservatives are “out of touch” on the issue, Ms. Chow said.

“I take it all the time,” she said. “If you look at the lineup in [Toronto’s] Union Station, they’re students, grandmothers, people who have ordinary jobs.”

As to whether new cuts are coming, Mr. Strahl speculated that the fact that the privatization options were not announced in the March 29 budget suggests to him that the government decided not to privatize routes. A spokesperson for the federal Minister of State for Transport, Steven Fletcher, said last week that “at this time, there are no plans to privatize any portion of VIA Rail Canada or divest any of their assets.”

Mr. Strahl said he finds it hard to rationalize the subsidies for lines like the Canadian and Jasper-Vancouver, where the passengers are often foreign tourists and there is evidence the private sector could provide a similar service.

“It’s an enormous subsidy, especially on the long-haul luxury stuff,” he said. “You’re subsidizing a foreign traveller to ride on a train and arguably they’re not spending a lot of money in the country. I mean, they’re spending it on the train ride, but they’re not buying hotels or meals. They’re sitting on the train.”

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