Canada Intercity Rail Politics

The future… never!


High speed rail: it’s an idea that has been talked about in Canada since the 1960s. But sadly, in 2016, we’re still just talking about it.

I’m a big fan of passenger rail. I’ve rode on most of VIA’s network, from coast to coast, as well as several long distance Amtrak lines in the United States, as well as trains in Britain, Continential Europe, and China. I enjoyed riding high speed rail (HSR) trains between London, Paris, and Amsterdam, but I also appreciate a leisurely cross-country ride. In Canada, the train isn’t very fast, nor is it very reliable, but it’s a comfortable, peaceful, and social way to travel. It’s still my favourite way to travel to Ottawa or Montreal.

Passenger rail — excepting commuter services such as GO Transit — declined in this country in the last 40 years, in terms of ridership, speed, and reliability. There are thousands of kilometres of track in Canada that hosted passenger trains only a few decades ago that are now torn up, the land sold off or turned into rail trails. In 1989, there were five trains a day in each direction through Kitchener and Stratford. Today, there are just two.

In 1976, a year before VIA Rail Canada was formally established, the fastest trains between Toronto and Montreal, (CN Trains 66 and 67, the famous Turbo,) were scheduled to take 4 hours and 10 minutes, stopping only at Guildwood and Dorval.

Today, the fastest train between Canada’s two largest cities, Train 68 from Toronto, takes 4 hours and 42 minutes, if it’s running on time. (It didn’t on Wednesday, March 23, arriving 41 minutes late into Montreal.) And there are only six direct trains in each direction between the two cities.

VIA Train 68 Status - March 23 2016
Delays, despite longer scheduled travel times, are common on the Corridor

While commuter rail services are expanding in Toronto and Montreal, passenger service has not. Since being formed in 1977, VIA Rail suffered through several major cutbacks in 1981 and 1990, and minor cuts in 2004 and 2012; but VIA held on despite the neglect – – or complete disdain — of both Liberal and Conservative governments. Ridership fell, not because people didn’t like riding trains, but because governments didn’t want to fund rail services, nor did freight railways like hosting them. Roads were seen as investment; passenger rail an expense.

Today, VIA only operates daily intercity rail service on several routes in Southern Ontario and Quebec. And that service is slow, infrequent, and unreliable. Competition from airlines — Air Canada, WestJet, and Porter operate on the busy Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor — and Megabus have hurt VIA’s ridership, but its slow speeds and unreliable service have as much to do with it as price and alternative options.

VIA Rail operates most of its trains on tracks owned by Canadian National (CN), on its busy freight mainline. VIA owns most of the tracks between Brockville, Ottawa, and Coteau, and the rails between Chatham and Windsor, but these tracks see very little freight service. CN’s dispatching is largely to blame — that railway gives priority to its own lumbering, long freight trains over short, quick, and nimble passenger trains. And track conditions are terrible on some parts of the corridor: between Stratford and London, where CN-owned tracks were leased to a freight shortline operator, the deteriorating bolted rail has forced VIA trains to slow to 30-40 miles per hour (50-65 km/h).

The provincial government is interested in a high speed rail corridor between Toronto, Kitchener, London and Windsor, including a stop at Pearson International Airport. And there have been several high speed rail plans for Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal, sometimes these plans extend the HSR corridor east to Quebec City, and west to London or Windsor. These studies were undertaken by the federal government, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, or by private advocacy and industry groups.

But despite the dreams of transportation advocates and many environmentalists, VIA’s latest plan doesn’t call for high speed rail, but a much more modest, $3-4 billion plan for dedicated tracks along the corridor. The plan calls for somewhat faster train service, running up to 110 miles per hour (177 km/h), using either conventional diesel or electric locomotives and coaches. This is either described as “higher speed rail” or “high frequency rail.” It’s not as sexy as HSR, but it’s a good start. VIA trains, using its best locomotives and coaches, are capable of speeds well over 100 MPH (160 km/h) but are restricted to top speeds of 95 MPH (153 km/h).

With dedicated tracks, free from delays caused by CN freight operations, VIA can operate faster trains, more frequently. VIA Rail’s CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, suggested that up to 15 trains a day, in each direction, could operate between Toronto and Montreal; travel times would be reduced by an hour between the two cities, making the train more competitive with air travel. Last fall Desjardins-Siciliano expressed optimism that the incoming Justin Trudeau-led Liberal government would fund VIA’s modest plan.

Of course, a dedicated rail corridor could be upgraded to full high speed rail in the future.

The first Liberal budget, presented in the House of Commons on Tuesday, was disappointing, despite much-needed investments in local transit projects, infrastructure in First Nations communities, among other things. The budget allocated a mere $3.3 million over three years (just over $1 million a year!) for more study into VIA’s proposal, while allocating $7.7 million in 2016-2017 for “pre-procurement activities for the renewal of VIA Rail’s fleet” and $34 million for improvements to its stations and maintenance facilities.

Maybe next year, there will be money for new rail cars and locomotives, not just more “pre-procurement activities.” Some of VIA’s rolling stock — the “HEP-I” and “HEP-II” coaches — were built in the 1950s, the more modern LRC coaches were built nearly 40 years ago. And hopefully the Liberals will fund VIA’s modest, but essential, rail project.

In the meantime, we’re still stalling on improved passenger rail. In true Canadian fashion.

2011 Rick Mercer Report video on high speed rail, still relevant five years later. 

4 replies on “The future… never!”

Thank you for this article. I was just reading about VIA rail the other day and noticed David Gunn’s (former TTC chair) comments about it. Sounds like Metrolinx with the constant “good news” stories and denying the real problems (

Also note, despite *paying* CN to lease rail, CN has let the track leading to Gaspe deteriorate beyond use and as of 2013 this town no longer has train service. Same issue on Vancouver island (Victoria–Courtenay service). They are now having issues with track leading from Montreal to New Brunswick. I doubt VIA rail will survive much longer beyond the Ontario / Quebec corridor.

Burn it all down.

In my view this has everything to do with how transit funding decisions are influenced by intergovernmental lobbying. Intercity rail has no effective “booster” at the city or provincial levels right now. Toronto, Montreal, Ontario and Quebec are effective (at times) in lobbying for funding for projects that clearly benefit those individual places, but when a project has less obvious benefit for *just* Toronto or *just* Quebec, *and* it competes with local-only projects, it will always lose. There is no government organization that effectively represents the interests of the Windsor–Quebec City corridor.

A national train carrier is not the answer; high-speed intercity rail in this country belongs at the provincial level, and for the purposes of this conversation, it should be considered part of Ontario’s provincial transit priorities. After all, almost all of the theoretical rails in question here would be in Ontario, connecting Ontario cities. The last few kilometres from Cornwall to Montreal could be considered just an extension of Ontario service in the same way that the TTC runs some routes into York, Durham and Peel for customer convenience. (And I suspect there is very limited actual demand for passenger service from anywhere in Ontario to Quebec City.)

While I think it’s rather extreme to “burn it all down”, I do agree that there needs to be some reconfiguration to allow GO and VIA to coexist more harmoniously. Take for example the Toronto-Kitchener trip that I do semi-regularly. GO takes 2h03 for a direct local train, or about 1h50 for a direct express train or a bus+train connection. VIA takes 1h35, which is noticeably faster, but not by a huge amount. But the single-ticket prices are vastly different. GO charges $15, while VIA charges $25. Clearly VIA doesn’t stand a chance in this competition. It’s no wonder that GO’s ridership has been steadily increasing while VIA’s declines.

But in the end, what sways me to GO almost every time is the fact that I don’t need to decide which train/bus to take until the moment I board. For short and medium distance intercity trips (<150 km), it is really valuable to have the flexibility to take whichever departure lines up with when you happen to be ready to depart.

Conversely for longer-distance trips such as Toronto-Ottawa or Toronto-Windsor (400+km), VIA's advance booking and reserved seats works really well. It avoids the need to show up to the station really early to get seats together with a travelling companion, and ensures that no one is left standing. Booking in advance is not as big of an inconvenience because people generally plan longer distance trips further in advance.

So to allow GO's more flexible fare and loading practices to expand to serve more medium-distance trip pairs such as London-Kitchener, Hamilton-Niagara etc, GO should expand to introduce a regional rail network spreading further afield than its current commuter rail network, and making limited stops where the two overlap. It also makes sense for the province to become more involved in regional rail because money spent on intercity rail is money saved on provincially-funded highways. It's a lot easier to make the numbers add up when it's all within the same level of government.

Meanwhile VIA could move upmarket toward being more of a premium express service by ending service to minor stations also served by GO. On the Toronto-Kitchener run for example, VIA could eliminate the stops at Malton and Georgetown stations. VIA would still be more expensive than GO, but at least it would have more speed to justify that difference.

And actually while VIA is limited to 95 mph on CN tracks (the old 100mph LRC limit seems to no longer apply), trains do operate up to 100mph on the VIA-owned lines that were upgraded a few years ago. On a recent trip to Ottawa I lucked out that the train I was on was entirely made of 110-125 mph equipment (no F40ph loco or HEP cars). We held a steady 160 km/h between Smiths Falls and Fallowfield (ranging from 158-163 on my GPS), making up several minutes that we were behind schedule.

VIA Rail service will be slower between Toronto and Montreal once they will cease using the CN tracks by rerouting through Peterborough and Ottawa. This will require to rebuild the winding abandoned tracks east of Peterborough that will take up to nearly 8 hours between those two major cities from the current 5 hours.

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