The Ocean, the longest continuous passenger line in North America, takes about 22 hours to wind its way from Halifax to Montreal.
The Ocean, the longest continuously-operating passenger line in North America, takes about 22 hours to wind its way from Halifax to Montreal.

When federal transport minister Marc Garneau got up to make his speech about his government’s new long term transportation plan (“Transportation 2030 — A Strategic Plan for the Future of Transportation in Canada”) Bruce Budd and Ted Bartlett had reason for optimism.

The chair and vice-chair of Transport Action, a rail advocacy group founded in 1977 (the same year as VIA Rail), knew that Garneau regularly made the trip between his Montreal riding and his Ottawa office by train. Even more promising, in the spring of 2015 Garneau had supported a VIA Rail Act, a sort of bill of rights for the flailing crown corporation, giving it the legal leg up that its American counterpart, Amtrak, has had since its inception: priority on the nation’s rail lines. The bill was put forward by an NDP member from the Gaspe, Philip Toone, and failed under the Conservative majority of the time.

Given Garneau’s track record and his travel habits, it seemed likely that his plan on Canada’s transportation future might include some initiatives in passenger rail. And the plan’s five themes, one of which was “green and innovative transportation,” seemed to foreshadow investments in our most clean and sustainable regional mode. But Budd and Bartlett were left disappointed.

While the federal plan mentions passenger rail briefly, promising to “look into the potential” of high frequency passenger service in the Windsor to Quebec City corridor, it leaves the desperate state of passenger rail in the rest of the country up in the air. Or more realistically, it seals its fate.

Without a federal initiative to give VIA Rail more power and security, it is likely that services like the Ocean will further dwindle to a point of uselessness.

Some might say that with a schedule of three runs per week, it’s already there. When Ted Bartlett came to Halifax from Moncton for a recent meeting of the Transport Action Atlantic board, the rail advocate opted to drive. He effectively had no choice: in order to go by train he would have had to stay in Halifax for three nights before the first returning train could take him home. As it stands, the Ocean could offer free fares and still be unusable by most travellers.

You might think its VIA Rail’s own decisions that have killed off passenger rail in the Maritimes. They are the ones, after all, who cut the schedules so radically. But, says Bruce Budd, the sorry state of passenger rail here is “not entirely, or even mainly VIA Rail’s fault. They were hobbled from the beginning.”

Budd is referring to the fact that VIA Rail was formed without a parliamentary mandate or rights. This is in contrast to its American cousin, Amtrak, which as it took over passenger service on the major US railways, was given regulated priority access to the lines controlled by those railways. Here in Canada, our national railway company was privatized in 1995 without so much as a single guarantee that VIA Rail would have continued access to the formerly public tracks.

So what’s happened since 1995? CN has removed signalling and sidings along stretches of single track in order to save on maintenance costs. Despite massive federal investments paid directly to CN to fix up stretches of track used by VIA, speed limits remain ridiculously low for passenger rail. Some stretches through New Brunswick have trains maxing out at 30 miles an hour (about 50 kph). VIA passenger trains get shunted into sidings that are fewer and farther between to wait for long, heavy, and slow freight trains. Their on time performance goes down and down. Meanwhile, CN’s stock goes up, and it pays out dividends to shareholders, including its biggest single owner, Bill Gates.

What’s to be done? Well, negotiating with CN would be a start, but it’s proved impossible.

VIA Rail’s current head, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, is actually floating a plan to rebuild a partially dismantled rail corridor in Central Ontario because negotiations with CN to date, including massive government investments in CN-owned infrastructure, have yielded little to no extra access for VIA Rail trains. He would quite simply rather build his own track than negotiate with CN.

That might work for population-dense Ontario, but here in the Maritimes we have no choice but to share the tracks that remain. “We’re not going to see dedicated rights of way for passenger rail in Atlantic Canada,” says Bartlett, “the population density just doesn’t justify it. What we have to do is consider recreating the infrastructure that existed 50 years ago where passenger and freight trains could coexist on the same track.”

In Halifax we’ve seen how difficult it can be to even get information out of CN regarding the possibility of using the tracks between Bedford and Halifax to get daily travellers through one of our transportation chokepoints. While the corporation has time for legal disputes with the city about who’s responsible for maintaining the bridges over the railcut, it does not accord a similar priority to negotiating access to the track inside the railcut.

The bottom line is that CN has exactly zero incentive to entertain enquiries from either Halifax or VIA Rail, or anyone else looking to engage in the less lucrative act of moving people rather than goods.

Federal government intervention is needed, says Bartlett.

“It’s because rail, both freight and passenger, has been neglected by federal and provincial governments for the past 50 years, that’s why the situation is what it is today, and it needs a paradigm shift in public policy.”

“Passing a VIA Rail Canada Act, which we strongly believe should be a priority for this government, is not a total solution, but it’s a start,” Bartlett says. “And it would set the stage for a passenger rail company that has a mandate, has guaranteed funding from the government of Canada, and has some degree of rights over the tracks that are owned by the freight railroads.”

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  1. Here we go again. The decline of passenger rail service in the Maritimes has been a persistent theme since the 1970s. Advocates for better service have worked tirelessly for decades, only to see the service deteriorate still further with each change of government. Meanwhile parts of the national system have been privatized so that well-off tourists can admire the stunning landscape that most Canadians can only see by car.

    Recently growing concern over climate change and the election of a government that claimed to be environmentally aware gave some hope that this trend would be reversed, or at least checked. Minister Garneau now signals that even that hope is dashed.

    Erica Butler has done us all a service by writing this article. We should show our appreciation by protesting in writing to Minister Garneau and our local MPs and by urging our the otherwise indifferent provincial governments to take up the cause. She mentions that Bill Gates is CN’s biggest shareholder – let’s write to him too!

    Paul Pross

  2. Right nor, Atlantic Canada does not have even a seat warmer on the board of directors at either CN or Via. Without representation, we are talking to ourselves when we complain that CN is obstructing development of commuter-rail transit into Halifax or that the decline of Via service to Montreal over the past ten years has become a shabby joke.

    Would it make any difference to have a east-coast representative on either or both boards? We could hope that a persistent individual might at least wear down resistance to a the idea of change. Without such a presence we can expect zilch.

    What needs to be done? Maritime MPs can put pressure on the government to appoint someone from the east coast to the Via board. CN is private and impervious to whinge-ing but perhaps Ottawa could figure out some sort of quid pro quo to get an Atlantic seat at the polished darkwood board-room table.

  3. Rail is a wonderful way to travel. I’ve taken the Ocean a couple of times to Belleville, Ontario. The first trip a few years ago I had choice of nearly every day for travel. Earlier this year the visit dates were restricted by the Ocean’s diminished scheduled which meant some inconvenience for the hosts.
    Not only should the trip be available every day, but the condition of the lines should be improved. Ultimately the tracks should be doubled as much as possible to allow for increased use of rail by container companies, reducing stress and danger on roads caused by major truck traffic. A better maintained line would also allow for faster travel. Twenty four hours is a long time when the journey can be accomplished in a few hours by air. On the other hand, by train one saves the trip to and from airports and if the community one is visiting is on or near the rail line as Belleville is there is saving in time and cost of extra travel. Plus you can eat and sleep on the train, no more expensive than a night in a hotel.

  4. It seems crazy to not strengthen the passenger rail service given climate commitments. Surely, decreasing passenger vehicle and truck traffic is an easy and effective goal. For the province it seems crazy to even think about spending 500+ million on highways in NS when that would restore passenger service between all major population centres. And before people moan on about the freedom of the car, as a person who does not live in a city, I see people who have had their lifestyle severely curtailed by the large expense of vehicle ownership, much of that expense due to the damage inflicted on the road by the passage of heavy trucks. Freedom to spend a lot of money when you shouldn’t have to is freedumb.