Harper government goes after passenger rail again

Photo by Jools Stone, http://www.trainsonthebrain.com

Passenger trains have made it onto the radar screen of the Harper government again, and that's always bad news.

This time, it isn't about nickel-and-diming Amtrak over customs inspections. They are taking a page out of the Republican playbook by talking about “privatizing” Via Rail, which is a euphemism for putting it out of business.

Now, why would be the Conservatives want to rid us of one of Canada's major tourist attractions, just to save approximately $250 million per year? That's about 0.1% of the Federal budget, in an era when we should be talking about reducing fossil fuel dependence, instead of increasing it.

A big reason is Rocky Mountain Railtours, which wants a monopoly on passenger rail travel in Canada. They have a long history of blocking efforts by Via Rail to move into more markets, such as Vancouver-Calgary. Now, they have lobbyists in Ottawa trying to sell the idea that they can not only run Via Rail off the tracks in Western Canada; they can take over passenger trains in Eastern Canada, too.

What's wrong with this? Rocky Mountain Railtours is not in the business of providing an alternative to automobiles and airplanes, or transporting passengers from one place to another in the shortest possible amount of time. What they operate is a cruise ship on rails, and their target market is high-rollers, not people visiting friends and relatives in Edmonton and Saskatoon.

Via Rail's management has said they are looking at reducing service in Western Canada. There are only three Vancouver-Toronto trains a week. What would a reduction in service look like? One train a week? A train every two weeks?

Instead, we should be talking about daily Vancouver-Toronto trains, which we had 20 years ago. Via Rail should run three trains a week on the existing Edmonton-Saskatoon routte, and four trains a week on the Calgary-Regina-Thunder Bay route. The latter is more scenic, and was more popular prior to its discontinuance in 1990. We should also be talking about reinstating the Vancouver-Lillooet-Prince George passenger service, which was discontinued by Gordon Campbell in 2002 as part of paving the way for the now-discredited BC Rail sale.

And where does the money for this come from? One huge difference between Via Rail and Amtrak is that Amtrak has been able to upgrade its rolling stock over the years, and Via Rail has been restrained from doing the same. Running trains with 60-year-old equipment is false economy; Via Rail is stuck with high maintenance and fuel costs.

Via Rail could also benefit financially by shutting down a major Canadian industry, high speed rail studies, and spending the money on actually transporting people instead. Take a look at the blurb below by comedian Rick Mercer:

Harper was in China at the time this was written. China is a place where the idea of privatizing or scaling back passenger rail would be greeted with laughter. Passenger rail in China has created a lot of revenue for Bombardier. Why can Bombardier take on an couple of projects in Canada?

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