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Ester Ahn gets in a cab after her train was cancelled due to VIA Rail service stoppage around Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, Dec. 24, 2022.NICK LACHANCE/Reuters

Greg Gormick is a transportation analyst and policy adviser based in Oshawa, Ont., and Studio City, Calif. His clients have included Via, CN, CP and federal, provincial and municipal politicians of four political parties.

When Via Rail executives appeared before the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities on Jan. 26 to explain the reasons behind railway’s Eastern Canadian service collapse over the Christmas holidays, they described the situation as “unique.” It wasn’t.

Another meltdown across the Quebec-Windsor, Ont., corridor routes during the first weekend of February, previously unreported, demonstrates that these snafus are becoming routine at Via – and throughout Canada’s frayed multimodal transportation system, including the highways and air services.

My home is directly across the street from the CN Toronto-Montreal main line, and I had a ringside seat to the chaos. In addition to what I’ve directly observed, Via’s train arrivals and departures website shows that, of the 78 Via trains scheduled to arrive at Toronto’s Union Station between 10:02 a.m. on Feb. 3 and 11:33 p.m. on Feb. 6, only 10 arrived on time. One Ottawa train was replaced by a bus because of a lack of available equipment and another that had been replaced by a bus westbound to Sarnia, Ont., offered no service eastbound the next day.

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The total delay experienced by travellers on these Toronto-bound trains was 52 hours and 45 minutes. Seven trains arrived more than two hours late at Toronto Union Station.

When I checked with the rail service, I found that Via’s own station staff at various Southern Ontario stations weren’t even informed of the reasons for the multiple February train delays so they could update passengers accurately. The situation was equally grisly in Montreal, Ottawa and every other Via station between Quebec, Windsor, Sarnia and Niagara Falls.

A request for a clarification was not immediately answered by Via’s media centre staff. But one thing is clear regardless: This recent meltdown, as with all the other ones, reflects Via’s long history of brokenness and deterioration. Sadly, it will not be the last of its kind.

So, why did this latest trainload of hours-long delays, “bustitutions” and cancellations occur?

Admittedly, Southern Ontario and Quebec did experience a snap of extremely cold weather during that weekend, but that weather was not as severe as the bomb cyclone storm that tore through the region at Christmas, knocking down trees along lines, disrupting the signal systems and grade-crossing protection gear, and contributing to the derailment of a CN freight train that blocked Via’s trains at Grafton, Ont.

The real reason lies deep in the rail service’s past. Throughout the mid-20th century, a steady stream of ill-informed government funding decisions had undermined the for-profit CN and CP passenger businesses. Indiscriminate funding overbuilt the highway and air systems for decades and successive governments have consistently failed to recover an adequate portion of those public costs from users. No longer considered the vote-chasers they once had been, railways had fallen from the political psyche like the gnawed bones at a barbecue.

After years of warning Ottawa of what they were facing, CN and CP were grudgingly compensated for 80 per cent of their passenger losses by the feds after 1967 until the government would approve the incremental elimination of the entire passenger service. The partial subsidy couldn’t and didn’t fix the core problems such as highway and air subsidies for construction, maintenance and operating losses, and the railways’ inability to invest in complete modernization of the aging passenger trains. It only prolonged the agony. The railways slowly and reluctantly shed their passenger trains, which had once been sources of corporate pride.

Then prospect of votes arising from the environmental and energy concerns of voters in the early 1970s, as well as the 1971 creation of publicly-funded Amtrak in the United States, led prime minister Pierre Trudeau to promise a rail revival during the 1972 election campaign.

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Five years later, Ottawa’s answer was Via, a new Crown corporation created through a House of Commons appropriation bill to start the funding and without specific legislation defining the new system’s rights, obligations and objectives. This left Via open to the whims of ever-changing federal cabinets. The first round of cuts happened within three years.

Those cuts were powered by an order-in-council that sidestepped the Canadian Transport Commission’s mandated hearing process. Transport minister Jean-Luc Pépin said Via’s rising ridership was partially to blame: The more passengers Via carried on its aging trains, the higher the cost. He said his government would modernize the retained routes, which they didn’t.

A Conservative riff on this perverse blame game rode along with the Brian Mulroney government’s axing of half the Via system in 1990. During the 1984 election campaign, the Tories promised to modernize and expand Via. The Mulroney government then blamed the 1990 cuts on the public. Their feeble line was that Canadians weren’t using the trains enough to justify the promised modernization, even though Via ridership had been rising.

Via’s two most recent service meltdowns are just another portion of its disastrous 46-year roller-coaster ride along the edge of a political cliff. The tragedy is that it could be easily and affordably fixed under a balanced national transportation policy – provided a mechanism could also be crafted to quell the political meddling.

Role models can be found in the 19 U.S. states that have coupled up with federally-owned Amtrak to improve and expand U.S. regional rail service through joint funding, transparent and accountable governance, modern equipment and infrastructure, and professional management. California, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia and Maine are leaders in this geographically and demographically diverse group.

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With the exception of one London-Toronto round trip that the government of Ontario premier Bob Rae revived through a cost-sharing agreement reached a year after the Mulroney cuts, no provincial government has ever put a cent into Via’s operations. The provincial politicians do, however, howl indignantly when cuts occur. The provinces have always maintained Via should be strictly on the feds’ tab, conveniently missing the fact that by generously funding highways and not compelling users to pay the full cost, they enable Via’s principal competition.

The 28 state-supported routes scattered from Maine to Texas to Washington are working examples for healing the wounds that this skewed funding has inflicted on regional mobility and economic development. The states point to the contributions these passenger trains make to their economies, as well as their success in diverting motorists to public transportation from publicly supported highways to reduce overall transportation spending, energy consumption, emissions and urban congestion.

Until such enlightenment strikes Canadian policy makers, Via’s meltdowns will not be unique and Canada will never enjoy the benefits of a modern, cost-effective and popular rail service. Policy makers in Ottawa and the provincial capitals might ponder the economic, social and environmental consequences of ignoring Via’s high cost and unreliability versus its potential if modernized and expanded.

Many of Canada’s global competitors faced similar decisions. They made their choices long ago, as their expanding networks of efficient, effective and on-time passenger trains demonstrate.

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