Canada's connection to the past is being degraded

My latest column for the Kitchener Post is now up on their website. It was a pleasant surprise to see them give it a prominent placement on the site, including a photograph of a train.

Here’s what I had to say:

Canada’s connection to the past is being degraded

For the past month VIA Rail, which could boast that it connected Canada’s three coasts, lost its connection to the Arctic.

On June 9, flooding in northern Manitoba severed the rail route between Winnipeg and Churchill. It is likely service won’t resume until next spring, at the earliest.

While floods of northern Manitoba can be called an act of God, they’re another in a line of incidents that highlight the crown corporation’s ill health, and its increasing difficulty in meeting its mandate.

VIA Rail’s on-time performance has faltered over the past few months. The southwestern Ontario group All Aboard St. Marys has complained bitterly of the delays experienced by their two trains passing through their town and Kitchener on the way to Toronto.

VIA’s own numbers indicate that, in February 2016, 76.4 per cent of trains arrived at their destination on time. This means that close to one out of every four trains in operation arrived late.

Helpfully, VIA listed the reasons why. Half of the delays in the Quebec-Windsor corridor came as a result of “infrastructure and traffic delay,” suggesting that competing freight trains were late in leaving the tracks ahead of a VIA Train.

Disturbingly, more than 28 per cent of VIA Rail’s delays in the Quebec-Windsor corridor were due to “mechanical and operational issues.” That’s equipment breaking down en route.

The problem is money. VIA Rail has been operating on a shoestring budget for decades, and the shoelaces got trimmed further in 2012 when Prime Minister Harper cut the corporation’s subsidy.

Among other things, those cuts robbed Kitchener of an early-morning inbound and late-evening outbound train to and from Toronto. VIA Rail operates with $100 million less subsidy than it did in 2011, and about the same level of support it had after monstrous cutbacks slashed its network in 1991.

Canada’s railways are a part of our national character. A big story of our rise to nationhood is the construction of our transcontinental railway. For many, VIA Rail is still the only operator able to get people in and out of isolated communities in parts of Canada’s north.

When VIA Rail offered inexpensive rail passes to students to travel the country for our nation’s 150th birthday, they were overwhelmed with interest. People want to take the train.

And VIA’s board has been looking at ways to increase service, including creating a reliable, frequent and fast service connecting Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and increasing service in southwestern Ontario using self-propelled rail cars.

But nothing has come of either of these initiatives because our government continues to starve VIA Rail of cash.

VIA Rail’s equipment is a testament to the work of its maintenance workers keeping everything looking good and in working order. But the equipment is still decades old, and there is only so much workers can do to keep these reliably on the rails.

Canadians want and deserve better rail service, and our government acknowledges this, having partnered with VIA to help promote Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.

The solution sounds simple on paper: VIA Rail’s subsidy, currently a bargain, has to be increased. There must be money to operate more trains and money to purchase new equipment.

What is missing is political will.

Until this government finds the will to increase VIA’s subsidy from a drop in the bucket to two drops in the bucket, VIA’s service will continue to degrade. It will fail to meet the demand that exists for its service.

And Canadians will lose access to a part of our infrastructure that made this country proud.

James Bow is a writer and a father of two in Kitchener, Ontario. You can follow him online at or on Twitter at @jamesbow.

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