Trudeau could signal Via renewal
Who is killing Canada’s passenger trains? It can’t be our prime minister.
Since he was a babe in his mother’s arms, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been exposed to the virtues of train travel. That’s thanks to his father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had a genuine affection and respect for passenger trains. He travelled on and campaigned from them frequently, and his government created Via Rail Canada in 1977.
When the future prime minister Trudeau was six months old, his parents took him to visit his grandparents in Vancouver on the aptly named Canadian Pacific Railway flagship, The Canadian.
He later travelled to the Maritimes with his father and their close friends, future Gov. Gen. Romeo LeBlanc (a railroader’s son) and his son Dominic, who is now MP for Beauséjour. They rode aboard CN’s Ocean Limited over the railway built as a mandatory requirement of Confederation in 1867.
And when he took his father home to his final resting place in Montreal, it was on a flagadorned version of The Canadian, operated by the Crown rail passenger corporation his father helped create in 1977.
Trudeau has had train exposure of late, too, including appearances at GO Transit’s Toronto shops and Montreal’s Central Station to announce funding of urban rail projects.
On July 30, the prime minister took his daughter Ella- Grace from Revelstoke to Calgary aboard the CPR’s Canada 150 Train.
But what of Canada’s passenger trains today? They are deteriorating rapidly and drastic action is required, especially on Via’s oncegreat and always-late Canadian. On Friday afternoon, Via reported one westbound Canadian was more than six hours late out on the prairies and the train that departed Toronto the night before was already three hours late in Northern Ontario. The eastbound sister train was more than nine hours late as it crossed the Manitoba- Ontario border. This is actually good performance by today’s standards.
Meanwhile, Via headquarters staff in their plush Place Ville Marie offices churn out multibillion-dollar dreams unlikely to ever materialize and feel-good press releases to paper over the mess.
Public money is required to modernize our rail passenger system, but just throwing more bucks into Via’s mink-lined sinkhole isn’t the answer. The government must seriously re-think this hobbled iron horse’s role and craft a rehab plan that outlasts any four-year election cycle. Our elected public servants must be reminded they have only temporary custody of Via on behalf of its true owners -- the public.
The problem here isn’t necessarily Trudeau, it’s his advisers. They don’t understand that a revitalization of our passenger trains would couple with their endlessly stated devotion to economic stimulus, national unity, regional inclusiveness, tourism development and a national climate change strategy.
Trudeau needs to gather his backroom power brokers for a chat about his very personal rail connections. Advisers such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford might then grasp what a rail renaissance would do for their leader, their government and their careers.
To fix our rail passenger system, Trudeau need only act on a view he expressed aboard the CPR’s sesquicentennial train: riding trains reminds us of their role in nation building.
He can reset his government’s signals to make our passenger trains nation builders and unifiers again. For reasons both personal and practical, he should do it.
Greg Gormick is a rail analyst and policy adviser whose clients have included Via, CP, CN and elected officials of all political stripes. He currently serves as transportation adviser to Oxford County.