2007-10-27

Canadian Trains Suck Ass

Most Canadians know that it will be a long time before the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. We have accepted waiting up to three months for a passport. But unreliable and expensive passenger rail service? That is one area of national mediocrity we can no longer afford.

In the race to reduce carbon emissions there’s not much low hanging fruit. Trains are a notable exception. The average car trip belches out 15 kg of carbon per 100 km. Flying is even worse at 49 kg. In contrast, train travel produces a paltry 4 kg of carbon per 100 per km and becomes even more efficient the more people that use it.

Besides the fate of the planet, trains just make sense. High speed rail lines - of which Canada has none - move three times as many people per unit land area as a hypothetically ideal highway not jammed with gridlock. Trains in Europe are either on-schedule or arrive early 92% of the time.

North American rail service is something else altogether.

A recent report shows that Via Rail is so chronically unreliable that trains between Toronto and Vancouver are on average 2 hours and forty-two minutes late. Between Montreal and Halifax, trains were late more than 60% of the time, mostly due to “major locomotive failure”.

Canadians don’t care if our passenger rail service is terrible (which it is) they can take their car or fly for about the same money, or less.

I recently took the train from Toronto to Ottawa. I could have flown for $20 more and saved myself four hours. I could have driven in less time and saved myself $80. Neither are particularly strong reasons to make an environmental choice.

My train was delayed no less than five times and at one point started moving backwards. We arrived in Ottawa over an hour behind schedule. The food was both lousy and expensive. The promised wireless internet access cost $10 fee and didn’t work. Worse than all that was neither the staff or the passengers seemed to care - apparently just another trip on our national rail carrier.

While there might have been a time when such incompetence was acceptable, that time has past. I am a fairly environmentally conscious person and I would certainly think twice about again choosing one the slowest, most expensive and unreliable ways to get from A to B. Imagine what a diehard car driver would think.

In contrast, I had the pleasure of spending a month in northern Italy last summer. Italian culture is not generally known for its compulsive efficiency but I cannot remember a single time when a train was late. The fares were ridiculously cheap. Connections were always made with ease. Given all that, there was virtually no other sensible choice for intercity travel.

So why do trains work so well in Europe and are such a miserable failure in Canada? Upper management is one reason. Via Rail has long been seen by federal politicians as a dumping ground for loyal political hacks. In 2004, both the President and Chairman of Via Rail lost their jobs over the sponsorship scandal. Both were appointed by the PMO in spite of the fact that neither had any experience running a railroad.

However, the main reason is money. Europeans have realized that trains are not a burden, but an opportunity. People have to get around somehow and instead of pouring public money into increasingly obsolete infrastructure for cars, they fund their rail service.

On that front, we have a long way to go. Public spending for roads in Canada is 47 times as much as for rail. In Europe, that imbalance is less than half.

The Sea to Sky Highway is a fine local example. The taxpayer is now shelling out over $600 million for a road upgrade to a ski resort - not exactly critical infrastructure.

Worse still, there is already a perfectly good rail bed from Vancouver to Whistler that could have been upgraded at a fraction of the cost. Premier Campbell’s green conversion would have a lot more credibility if he stopped shoveling public money at car-based mega projects.

Our rail service has also been a favorite place for governments to slash spending. Via had its budget cut in 1981, 1989, 1994 and 2003, and has been limping along since the days of Pierre Trudeau. Last year they had an operating deficit of $178 million.

This has a predictable effect on ticket prices. My Via Rail ticket from Toronto to Ottawa cost $120 - one way. A similar distance in Europe costs the equivalent of $30.

The recent infusion of cash into Via from the federal government is welcome news but it will do little more than keep their geriatric F-40 locomotives in service for a few more years.

Transforming our rail service instead requires a complete re-think of where our public transportation dollars go. This must include a commitment to high-speed dedicated passenger lines – something that should have happened a long time ago.

Climate change demands that we re-create Via Rail into a service that is efficient, cheap, reliable and fast. Unimaginable? Perhaps. But I also believe that the Leafs will one day again win the Stanley Cup.

This piece ran nowhere.

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

Perhaps it ran nowhere -- but *I* read it. Very good! Solid thinking! We have the same troubles with rail travel here in the U. S., with the added difficulty that "Amtrak" has become synonymous with "train wreck." Sigh.

Paul said...

Thanks for the post!

This very much equates to my own frustrations with our rail system. I often travel between Ottawa and London, which requires renting a car and close to seven hours of driving. I loathe the drive for all the usual reasons: congestion on the 401, pollution and price of renting a car.

A few times I've taken the train and at least in the winter it's far better than driving even with the excruciating delays and high prices. But it could be far better.

As I understand it, VIA doesn't actually own the tracks, which means that often its passenger trains get stuck behind cargo trains owned by CN. Why should I have to wait for a few wagon-loads of industrial fertilizer to go ahead?? This would be unheard of in Europe.

Improvement of our rail system should be a much higher priority for our politicians. We should all look at raising the issue during the next election.

Anonymous said...

i work for via rail on board the canadian. i have been employed for 10 years now. i agree 100% with this blog. we recently had a schedule change which increased travel time between toronto and vancouver by over 24 hours!!! this was supposed to improve ontime performance, what a joke!!! we are still running at least over 2 hours late!!! my last trip we were over 10 hours late arriving from vancouver into winnipeg. this job sucks and i am currently accepted into commerce at my local university and i am counting the days until i can start school and leave this nightmare of a job. via rail has been consistantly getting worse and worse since the year i started....