It’s time to treat train pas­sen­gers bet­ter than grain

Ot­tawa needs to call CN to ac­count over rail-route de­lays, Greg Gormick writes

Montreal Gazette - - OPINION -

To para­phrase a 1978 com­edy-mys­tery film, “Who is killing the great trains of Canada?” The cast of char­ac­ters is lengthy.

Start with Lib­eral and Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments, which have seen no value in a mod­ern rail pas­sen­ger sys­tem since Via Rail was launched the same year as that movie.

Cue the fresh-faced Ot­tawa pol­icy ad­vis­ers whose cre­den­tials in­clude rail-rel­e­vant work in cos­met­ics mar­ket­ing; I kid you not.

Add a dash of hos­til­ity by air­lines and bus lines that want Via’s sub­sidy di­verted to their ac­counts.

But there is no ques­tion who is slowly eu­th­a­niz­ing the great­est of all Cana­dian pas­sen­ger trains, the world-renowned Cana­dian on the Toronto-Sud­bury-Van­cou­ver route: It’s former Crown cor­po­ra­tion Cana­dian Na­tional.

Since it was pri­va­tized in 1995, CN has been ex­tend­ing the length of its freight trains, but not keep­ing pace by ex­tend­ing the sid­ings where op­pos­ing trains can “meet” each other or slower ones can be over­taken by faster ones.

As a re­sult, many CN em­ploy­ees now joke about the Cana­dian “own­ing” those short sid­ings.

When this started more than a decade ago, CN com­pelled Via to add a night to the Cana­dian’s sched­ule, mak­ing it slower than it was in the days of steam lo­co­mo­tives and ice-cooled coaches. Its per­for­mance im­proved briefly, but is now at its low­est level ever, with only one in four trains ar­riv­ing in Toronto or Van­cou­ver on sched­ule in 2016.

In re­cent months, the Cana­dian has ar­rived in Toronto up to 20 hours late.

This throws peo­ple’s travel plans into dis­ar­ray and drives Via’s costs through the roof. Be­cause of the length­ened sched­ule CN foisted on Via in 2009, the lat­ter doesn’t have enough cars to as­sem­ble an ex­tra train in Toronto when

There has been con­sid­er­able grum­bling on so­cial me­dia by pas­sen­gers in all classes.

the east­bound train ar­rives late from the West. This de­lays the west­bound train’s de­par­ture and in­con­ve­niences hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers clear across the coun­try.

The Cana­dian sched­uled to de­part Toronto on the evening of Aug. 1 left nearly 13 hours late be­cause it re­quired equip­ment and crew from the in­bound train.

And yet the train re­mains in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar. Known world­wide as the last of the great stream­lin­ers, it at­tracts pas­sen­gers will­ing to pay up to $9,000 per cou­ple for lux­ury sleeper space in the sum­mer.

With the Canada 150 Youth Pass Via of­fered this sum­mer, its low-cost coach rid­er­ship has jumped more than 40 per cent.

But there has been con­sid­er­able grum­bling on so­cial me­dia by pas­sen­gers in all classes of ac­com­mo­da­tion. Many have said this will, in­deed, be a “once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence” be­cause they won’t ride the Cana­dian again.

The so­lu­tion is sim­ple: Ot­tawa needs to call CN to ac­count.

It has the power to do so, es­pe­cially since CN was re­lieved of the obli­ga­tion to pro­vide this service when Via was cre­ated.

As well, CN re­ceives more than $6 mil­lion an­nu­ally to do lit­tle more than al­low the train known as the Sil­ver Lady on its tracks.

Mean­while, south of the bor­der, Am­trak’s Em­pire Builder be­tween Chicago and Seat­tle rolls along daily in both di­rec­tions on a rail­way flooded with long freight trains, just like CN.

It usu­ally runs on time or only a few min­utes late, and it is fre­quently early.

Not to en­cour­age pub­licly funded jun­kets, but Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau and his ad­vis­ers might ride the Em­pire Builder to find a fix for the Cana­dian.

They’d learn it is pos­si­ble to run both pas­sen­ger and freight trains on the same line and en­sure pas­sen­gers are treated as well (or bet­ter) than car­loads of lum­ber, grain and crude oil.

Of course, if the Cana­dian’s rep­u­ta­tion, mar­ketabil­ity and pub­lic util­ity are de­stroyed, trav­ellers will have the op­tion of tak­ing their va­ca­tion bucks south to ride the Em­pire Builder.

“Sunny ways, sunny days,” as they say in Ot­tawa.

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