In part two of my three-part series on public transportation in southern Ontario in the Kitchener Post, I talked about the role VIA Rail should play. Any role, really. It too is being allowed to die on the vine, which is an absolute tragedy. For this article, I was helped by transportation consultant Greg Gormick, who has some solid ideas about how to improve train travel in southwestern Ontario. If we could couple this to an expanded inter-city bus network, we could significantly improve mobility for people in southwestern Ontario who do not have access to cars.
Since I wrote this article, I believe that the Talgo trains that I referred to as lying mothballed where shipped to Washington State to replace the Talgo equipment that was destroyed by the horrific derailment on the Amtrak Cascade route a few weeks ago. Most of the rest of this article stands, however. It's time to make real use of VIA Rail.
Government letting VIA rail die on the vine, say James Bow
Last week, I talked about the need to improve our intercity transportation by expanding and co-ordinating our services into a wider network spanning southwestern and south-central Ontario. Today, I want to talk about our intercity trains.
I realize I talked about VIA Rail's pressing problems earlier this year, but it bears repeating.
It makes no sense to me that the agency should be contemplating service cuts within the next five years due to equipment shortages when the federal and provincial governments are wasting money studying potential high-speed rail through the region that may only materialize after 10 years, if at all.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Greg Gormick, who is working as a transportation policy adviser to Oxford County, to get a better sense of what is happening with VIA.
Basically, VIA Rail is dying from neglect. Even though ridership is increasing, VIA's federal subsidies are paying only to maintain the status quo. The status quo is not tenable for most of its equipment.
Much of VIA Rail's passenger equipment is more than 50 years old, but it's the newest equipment, Gormick notes, is causing the most maintenance headaches.
The Renaissance Class fleet was purchased as a bargain. The equipment had originally been built in the late 1990s to provide night service through the Channel Tunnel. They were not built to Canadian loading standards, and were never intended to face Canadian conditions.
So, while these passenger cars may have been a bargain when they were bought, a third of the fleet is now out-of-service, being cannibalized for parts to maintain the remaining cars.
As these parts aren't standard and hard to come by, it will get increasingly expensive to keep this fleet in service.
The next newest passenger equipment also have problems. The LRC trains, unveiled in the late 1970s, feature aluminum bodies that are proving expensive to rebuild. Age is also affecting VIA's locomotives, and no moves have been made toward replacing them.
While VIA Rail's maintenance crews perform miracles maintaining these cars and the stainless steel transcontinental cars, this can't go on forever. VIA needs new equipment by 2022 at the latest, and the time to purchase that equipment is now.
Fortunately, options are readily available, if we would just commit to them.
In the U.S., Amtrak and the privately-run Florida East Coast railroad have purchased brand new passenger equipment and locomotives from Siemens. These are tried and true, and could be applied to VIA Rail's network immediately. VIA could even piggyback onto an Amtrak order to obtain a volume discount.
Gormick also notes that VIA could reduce its equipment pressures now, and create buzz by leasing a pair of modern train sets that are available from a company called Talgo. Talgo trains are already in operation between Portland and Seattle, offering comfortable seats, great vistas and Wi-Fi.
A pair of these special train sets were commissioned for service in Wisconsin before the governor backed out. They're gathering dust when they could be moving people.
The cost of completely replacing VIA Rail's equipment comes to $1.5 billion, which isn't cheap, but the cost of delaying this decision is mounting. VIA provides important service throughout southern Ontario and Quebec, and it would be wrong to let it wither.
Rather than study proposals for specialized high-speed trains in the unforeseeable future, the federal and provincial governments need to step up now and make the investments needed to ensure that VIA operates through the next decade.