The Trans-Border Express


Recently, the president of VIA Rail announced plans to increase the number of trains travelling through southwestern Ontario. His proposal calls for two extra trains operating between Toronto and London, via Brantford, three additional trains operating between Sarnia and London, and an additional departure and return from Stratford to Toronto. The plans for these services are supposed to be finalized by the end of this year, with trains to roll in 2016.

As a man who loves trains, I am of course delighted by this news, though I have to wonder how VIA intends to pay for this, given that they cut service to southwestern Ontario not three years ago, thanks to Conservative government cutbacks. I’m not being pejorative, here; I just want to know the details: has VIA found savings that they can channel into new trains? Is it looking for additional subsidies at the provincial level? Is it looking for additional subsidies at the municipal level? I’m not opposed to any of these ideas; I just want to know the means. If it works, maybe we can call upon VIA to restore the Northlander service between Toronto and Cochrane.

It’s a shame that we don’t spend more than we do on our passenger railroads. As popular and potentially useful as these trains are, we seem to be fighting a losing battle in maintaining our rail network. We lost service in 2012. We also have fewer trains between Canada and the United States. Today, only three cross-border runs operate (Vancouver to Seattle/Portland, Montreal to New York via Albany, and Toronto to New York). Not too long ago, that number was five, with the Toronto-Chicago train and a second Montreal-New York train vanishing due to a number of issues.

One big issue was the border crossing.

The way VIA Rail and Amtrak handle customs and immigration checks on its cross-border trains is beyond ludicrous. The train pulls up to the nearest station to the border on the Canadian side, drops off its Canadian crew and picks up the American crew, who sloooowly guide the train across the border to the nearest station on the American side, whereupon the train sits and waits as customs and immigration officials (typically only two) board the train and proceed to question the passengers one by one before clearing the train to continue.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, customs delays increased to utterly ridiculous levels, crushing ridership on the Toronto-to-Chicago “International” and the Montreal-to-Washington “Montrealer. In both cases, Amtrak found it more lucrative to simply chop the train at the border, improving departure times from Port Huron, Michigan and St. Albans, Vermont. The states of Michigan and Vermont were more than happy to help these improvements (for their residents, at least) along with additional subsidies.

But the situation was clearly less than ideal for passengers who wanted to travel between some of the biggest cities on this continent, and Amtrak knows this. They tried to patch the Montrealer up with a bus connection, but it didn’t take. The agency has launched a number of initiatives to restore the Montreal-to-St. Albans connection, only to fall short. Amtrak knows that the only way for the restored service to succeed is to ditch the ludicrous customs stop at the border.

The solution for Montreal service would seem to be obvious: Montreal is the only stop on the Canadian side for the old Montrealer and the current Adirondack. If passengers could just pre-clear customs at Montreal’s Gare Central the way they do at Dorval airport, travel times could be significantly shortened and the service made more comfortable and convenient. Amtrak officials know this, as do various proponents on both sides of the border. Noises have been made for a similar pre-clearance at Toronto’s Union Station for Amtrak’s Maple Leaf service to New York City. So why has nothing happened?

I would very much like it if we can get moving on this. It seems silly that, for all the romance of the rails, our border crossings would be handled with less convenience and speed than our airports.

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