On the Death of VIA Rail

Here’s my latest column for the Kitchener Post. No surprise, it revisits an issue that I’m passionate about.

VIA Rail needs new equipment before it falls apart

OPINION Aug 09, 2017 10:52 by James Bow Kitchener Post

I realize that I have spoken about the federal government’s inadequate funding of VIA Rail recently, but I want to focus on a matter raised by Chris West of the All Aboard St. Mary’s citizens committee.

VIA Rail needs new equipment. The train cars they operate are decades old. VIA’s maintenance crews have done incredible work keeping these cars on the rails, but there is only so much that can be done.

Without a massive overhaul, enough equipment will become unusable by 2020 that VIA will have no choice but to cut service. At this point, it makes more sense to purchase new cars than to rebuild the old ones.

This doesn’t come cheap. Replacing VIA’s fleet with new equipment will cost more than $1 billion in up-front charges. However, by not spending this money, the federal government is making VIA Rail waste money year after year.

Old equipment costs a lot to maintain. This is eating up VIA Rail’s subsidy and preventing them from expanding service.

Even more cynically, rather than commit to funding VIA Rail’s needs one way or another, the government of Canada has committed to spending money on VIA Rail, by studying the issue.

This ignores the fact that Amtrak is spending money purchasing new rail equipment for its lines. An opportunity exists here for VIA Rail to partner up with this purchase, obtaining a volume discount that will give taxpayers better rail equipment for less money.

Instead, the government of Canada told VIA Rail to spend $1 million to conduct a study to look at options.

The cynical could say that this money is being spent to give the illusion that the government is doing something in order to push back the need to do anything. And, at present, I’m hard-pressed to disagree with the cynics.

This is far from the only case where our governments have decided to spend money studying a problem rather than actually solve it.

The provincial government’s announcement that it was spending $15 million to study installing a high-speed rail line between Toronto and Windsor generated a lot of media interest.

Unfortunately, it ignores that this is the latest in a long line of studies on high-speed rail in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, none of which have borne fruit.

While it would not be true to say that the amount of money spent studying high-speed since the 1970s could pay for the actual construction of the line, the funds could well have kept some of the trains operating that were cut back by Prime Minister Harper in 2012.

We know what the issue is: VIA Rail’s equipment is getting too old to operate. It’s costing a lot more than it should to keep the trains on the rails.

We know what the solution is: spend the money necessary to replace the old equipment. Even though this will likely cost over $1 billion to completely replace the fleet, that’s a one-time payment that will be paid off over the twenty-to-thirty-year lifespan of the new cars.

And we know what the stark alternative is: shut down VIA Rail completely before it falls apart.

Both choices may be unpalatable to this government, but appearing to address the issue without actually addressing the issue does a disservice to VIA riders and Canadian taxpayers.

I personally want to see VIA Rail continue to operate and to improve and expand its services. The time to commit to that future is now and our governments need to grow the backbone to make that commitment.

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

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