The construction of a railway line that linked the Canada created in 1867 with the western provinces that joined Confederation a few years later is an essential Canadian creation myth. The "national dream,” as John A. Macdonald called it, is mostly evoked as a feat of engineering that bound a young nation together.
But that’s the romantic side of the coin. Flip it over and you’ll find a different bit of train lore: A tale of corruption, cronyism, government bailouts, bankruptcies and nationalization, all of which lead us to today, where passenger services are taxpayer-subsidized and the lucrative business of hauling freight is in the hands of billion-dollar corporations created on the public dime.
And yet Ottawa and Via Rail, the Crown corporation formed in 1977 after Canadian Pacific and Canadian National begged off of the money-losing passenger business, can’t quite shake the romance of train travel out of their heads.
Where once the railways carried 60 million passengers a year, by the 1970s that had dropped below 5 million, thanks to competition from air travel and the rise of the car.
Via today runs all passenger service between major Canadian cities. Last year, it lost $93-million on its busiest route – the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto service. Over all in 2018, it carried 4.7-million passengers, had an operating loss of $272.6-million, and received $394-million in government subsidies.
As well, Via’s trains only arrived on schedule about 70 per cent of the time in 2018.
In spite of these downsides, Via thinks it can run a profitable passenger service in the most populated area of the country. Its proposal is to build what it calls “high-frequency rail” in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor.
High-speed service, where trains run in excess of 200 kilometres an hour, has been mooted as a possibility in the past, but it has always proven to be too expensive and complicated to implement.
Via’s high-frequency plan is more practical and less expensive. Instead of trains that go super fast, it involves trains that clip along at a healthy 160 km/h, and which leave more frequently and arrive on schedule.
Via estimates that, for $4.4-billion, it can build a dedicated passenger line north of the current route that hugs the shore of Lake Ontario, and which is choked with freight traffic.
The new line would run from Toronto, through Peterborough, Ont., and on to Ottawa, where it would jog down to Montreal and then continue on to Quebec City along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.
Via says the line would allow it to make the Ottawa-Toronto run in 3 hours and 15 minutes, as opposed to the current 4 hours and 30 minutes. More people would use it, Via says, and the service would become profitable.
The federal government is on board. Last December, it gave Via $1-billion to upgrade its aging stock; in June, Transport Canada and the embryonic Canada Infrastructure Bank together gave it another $71-million for feasibility studies of its high-frequency proposal.
The money from the Infrastructure Bank is important, because it is an implicit endorsement of Via’s belief that it can get the private sector to invest in its project.
But while it would be nice to think that a modern, reliable and speedy rail service between the country’s two biggest cities would be economically viable, the odds are against it.
People have a lot of other options. There are more flights than ever between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, including from downtown Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport – and air travellers aren’t getting a taxpayer subsidy. And while Ottawa daydreams about rejuvenating rail, governments are constantly expanding free highways, which are a subsidy to travel by car, ride-hailing services or bus.
If highways were tolled, passenger rail in Southern Ontario and Quebec might stand a chance. But the main reason the Montreal-Toronto corridor still doesn’t have high-speed rail, or even medium-speed rail, is because building it has always come with the need for a very large subsidy from taxpayers. Queen’s Park and Ottawa have made vague promises about supertrains before, often prior to elections, but the costly idea then gets shunted onto a siding, and with good reason.
If the Infrastructure Bank can jump-start a big private rail investment with a small amount of public seed money, then Canadians should support that. Otherwise, this train should remain in the station.