Why does the federal government own and operate a passenger train service?

The answer is not immediately self-evident.

VIA markets itself as “A More Human Way to Travel”; in many ways that is true.  I recently took VIA Rail from Melville, Saskatchewan to Edmonton, Alberta, a distance of approximately 900 km.  The accommodations were admittedly much, much more human than even Executive Class on Air Canada.  My sleeper cabin was approximately 10’ x 5’, fully private, with a bathroom, sink and bed that I had no idea how to fold out, but thankfully the porter was more than happy to assist in that regard.

In fact, the service personnel on the train were exceptionally more than human.  The food was great, the staff friendly and the entire experience positive, that is if one places no or little value on time.

The scheduled departure time for VIA 1 was 5:27 pm and the scheduled arrival time in Edmonton was 6:30 am.  I was perplexed as to how a distance that could be easily driven, with breaks, in 9 hours could take 13 hours to travel, since it makes only brief scheduled stops.

The reality is the train stops many, many times.  Sometimes it stops for oncoming freight trains, sometimes it stops so freight trains travelling in the same direction can pass and sometimes it stops for no apparent reason at all.

The fact that a passenger VIA train has to yield the right of way to a freight train shows the relative value of the respective commodities to the rail lines.

Only about a dozen people got on VIA 1 at Melville, a remarkably low number, given that it was July (the peak of the holiday season) and the train only departs three times each week.

Sadly, the train arrived in Melville over an hour late and pulled out of the station 90 minutes behind schedule.  These events proceeded without any explanation.  The time delay equalled the total approximate time for a commercial airline to fly from Regina to Edmonton!!

I did have a wonderful meal in the dining car but it was there that I learned that many of VIA’s passengers are not Canadian but tourists from Europe, Australia and many from the USA.

The VIA “Destinations” magazine boasts that since 2007, the Government of Canada has invested $923M in the transformation of VIA (www.viarail.ca/transformingVIA).  Meanwhile, in terms of operating expenses, in 2011, VIA lost $298M; cumulatively between 1980 and 2010, VIA lost  approximately an astonishing $13B.

All of which raises a question as to why Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing a rail service that so few Canadians, especially in Western Canada, ever use.  And why would we, when it takes longer and costs more than comparable commercial travel??

In the more densely populated central Canadian corridor (Windsor-Quebec City), the train is actually quite popular and with enough customers, presumably could be operated without taxpayer subsidy.

However, so few people are using the VIA service from Toronto-Vancouver that it was recently announced that the service was being cut back from three to two times per week in each direction.  This announcement went so unnoticed that our MP office received not a single call or e-mail complaining about this service reduction.  If VIA disappeared all together in Western Canada, would anybody even notice??   If VIA Rail Canada really is “A More Human Way to Travel”, why are so few humans actually travelling via VIA??  And is this good value for the Canadian taxpayer??


19 comments for “Why does the federal government own and operate a passenger train service?

  1. Liam Connelly
    July 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I can travel London to Glasgow westcoast line line in under 5 hours first class for around $120. ( Richard Branson Virgin-rail)
    I can go from Paris to our property in Scotland by rail in 11 hours.
    Just saying.

  2. Sherry Rix
    July 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    The Government of Canada should be supporting rail travel instead of instituting short-sighted budget cuts that necessitate cut backs in service. I didn’t contact my MP (in Edmonton Centre) when VIA announced the cutbacks to their schedule, but I now realize I should have, as I was extremely disappointed that the schedule had been reduced.

    • Marcelo Benoit
      July 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      I think that MP also must ask if the roads are profitable and why there are no roads closed because of that. And of course taking into account the traffic accidents, pollution and other external costs into road transport and compare it with train service (existing or past).

  3. Casey DesChamp
    July 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    I have been fortunate enough to travel Edmonton – Montreal and back on VIA Rail. It was many years ago but I still have fond memories. My favourite route is Vancouver to Calgary (or reverse). Going through the Rockie Mountains by train is an experience I wish were mandatory for Canadians, right up there with visiting our Parliament Buildings.

  4. Marcelo Benoit
    July 23, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    The problem is that VIA Rail since the 1990 cuts slowly go towards a “cruise train” only between Toronto and Vancouver. If you wish to board in an intermediate unmanned stop, you must do the request 48 hours before… and there are less and less trains, so it´s obvious why there are less people travelling… in USA, Amtrak do a lot of things in the same train: tourist, long distance transport and also regional transport, linking small cities and towns between them and with the big cities. Before 1990, VIA did the same. Now… it is only slowly being killed…

  5. Avrom Shtern
    July 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Dear Brent Rathberger,

    The governing Liberal Party set the ball rolling in the mid 1960s with their agenda of cutting passenger rail out of the transportation mix and pumping billions into the current fly/drive system. In 1981 The Liberals once again cut VIA Rail by 20% and began the process of eliminating local passenger rail services in Western and Atlantic Canada. 1990 was the watershed moment when the Progressive Conservatives massacred VIA Rail and cut its network by 50%. Up until that time many more Westerners and Atlantic Canadians rode passenger trains and thought of them as being part of the Canadian fabric. These days most people are far removed from rail because very little is offered and the trains that remain, other than the corridor shuttles, are out of reach for most people. Your government is following in the same tradition as previous administrations and is setting the table for an eventual elimination of passenger rail service in most of the country. If you make the service unattractive with frequencies less than daily what do you expect? Canada does not consider rail to be part of the transportation mix anymore. That is the reality.

  6. Darren Mullin
    July 23, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Dear Mr. Rathgeber,

    I am happy to see that you took the time to experience the benefits of traveling by train. I would also invite you to take a trip on a long distance Amtrak train that is subsidized by American tax payers so that you can see how successful a properly managed national public passenger rail service can be.

    The reality with the train that you traveled on (The Canadian) is that the fares are beyond what the average Canadian traveler can afford. The Canadian service Via Trains 1 & 2 is solely marketed to tourists and Via Rail ignores the real needs of the traveling public. If The Canadian (Via 1 and 2) offered more affordable fares and provided a daily service, this would greatly benefit the average Canadian traveler. Canadians want to be able to take the train but they also want to be able to afford it as well. Amtrak provides daily service on several routes across the United States. The difference is, is that the fares are affordable and the schedules provide for at least a daily train. I would like to again remind you that Amtrak is owned by the US Government and ridership continues to grow.

    Via rail must continue to be a publicly operated national passenger service as that is what it intended to be when it was formed in 1977. In order for Via Rail services to be successful, the service must be affordable, provide a daily service and remain in public hands.

    Thank you,

    Darren Mullin

  7. Matthew
    July 24, 2012 at 12:40 am

    You neglected to mention that the trip you took was overnight. Assuming you slept for 8 hours, you only had 5 hours of waking time on the train. If you drove nine hours you wouldn’t be able to do anything else but listen to the radio and you would be very tired. But those 5 hours on the train you can eat, read, talk, work or just relax. So it sounds like a very good use of time. Nine hours in the car, what can you really accomplish? You’ve saved yourself four hours by taking the train! (assuming it is on time)

    Sounds like you’ve had a nice trip, but you’ve noticed many things that need to be improved with VIA. I agree there are many things that need fixing, as I’ve taken the Canadian 14 times in the last 4 years. In brief:
    – schedule not frequent enough
    – the trip shouldn’t take that long as you said
    – poor on-time performance
    – stations are in out of the way locations eg. (Saskatoon, Edmonton, Kamloops)
    – VIA doesn’t advertise to Canadians in the west
    – poor intermodal connections
    – even the connection with the Jasper to Prince Rupert train (VIA’s own train) are riduculous, look it up! It is designed to fail.
    – the cutbacks were announced on a Thursday afternoon just before the Canada Day weekend. Hmm that sounds suspicious
    – Cuts to VIA Rail mandated by your government will send ridership into a death spiral, with more cuts planned next year

  8. Susan
    July 24, 2012 at 5:05 am

    You are right why should the government subsidize a money losing passenger train when the majority of Canadians choose their cars or a commercial 100% private airline company. The government already subsidizes roads. In Europe fuel costs are more than double than in North America and with the population density passenger rail is a choice people make. Although no passenger system in the world makes a profit. Even VIA rail subsidizes every passenger on the Montreal Windsor corridor. The lefty MP’s ride on a passenger train in Europe and then whine about why we can’t have the same speed and frequency here. Please compare apples to apples, Why should we subsidize VIA?

    • Frank Smith
      July 26, 2012 at 12:17 am

      Railways in Japan do make a profit. Most high speed lines in Europe make at least an operating profit (though the up front investment can be steep). A high speed line between Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto would likely make an operating profit.

      Build infrastructure with government money where the population density is high enough and then you will see operating profits. At the moment, this is likely to only be in the Quebec-Windsor corridor (and likely only Montreal to Toronto via Ottawa to start with).

      Toll roads and airports also cost money to build and are only profitable on the operating level.

  9. July 24, 2012 at 5:57 am

    Hi, I just wanted to tell you, you’re wrong. Your point doesn’t make any sense.

  10. Mark Dowling
    July 24, 2012 at 6:20 am

    “The fact that a passenger VIA train has to yield the right of way to a freight train shows the relative value of the respective commodities to the rail lines.”

    Nope. It shows what happens when you let an operator (CN, in this case) own a right of way and give inferior access to other operators.

  11. July 24, 2012 at 6:45 am

    The Quebec-Windsor Corridor will never pay for itself. Even the highly touted European trains are heavily subsidized, as are airlines, buses, and pretty much any other form of public transportation.

    I would challenge you to try to get to Edmonton from Melville using the bus. Greyhound can get you there in almost 17 hours! What alternative is there for people who do not own a car, or cannot fly? You are lucky that Melville actually has passenger rail service. Ask those in Regina or Calgary… they have not had passenger rail service for many years.

    The Canadian should not be cut back. Passenger rail in the west should be enhanced, with more regional rail services to provide a public service to give people alternatives to flying and provide service to those who cannot drive several hours to reach a major airport. This is the time to invest in rail, not to cut back.

  12. Jon Calon
    July 24, 2012 at 7:37 am

    I’m still absolutely furious Over the cuts to VIA Rail’s budget and penning my letters to my MP and the PMO. However, here are some responses to your questions as to why Canadians don’t ride more frequently:

    1). The service is not daily. To be an effective public transportation supplier, one needs to have a decent frequency with which to run the service. Thrice-weekly is extremely poor and really only good for those who can have the fortitude to say they will plan around that sort of schedule.

    2). Cost. When I’ve asked others why they don’t consider the train, they tell me how expensive the trip would’ve been. If the general public doesn’t have the flexibility to take advantage of the fares from VIA’s express deals, then yes, it is extremely expensive.

    3). The service doesn’t go where it needs to. Prior to VIA’s 1990 service cuts, the experts said the service across western Canada was already at an irreducible minimum, and that was with two routes on a daily service. Now we have one route across a sparsely populated area with only three trains per week.

    4). Speed – or lack thereof. You’ve pointed out that the train you rode was slow. That’s because CN (the host railway) doesn’t always give the train priority, especially when it loses it’s slot in the schedule. Legislation to assist VIA maintain schedules would be a good thing, but when the host railway isn’t also a crown corporation, it will be viewed in a negative light. Faster running speeds also require better maintenance, and take more capacity from the host railway, so it would exceed the budget, and this is why the train runs slowly.

    Yes, the train is a human way to travel. But in it’s current offering, it’s good to tourists and those on a very leisurely schedule. Most people in Canada are not, and also prefer using transportation modes which have been lavished with public dollars, like the highways and airports.

    Unfortunately, the conservative majority governments have been very opposed to any sort of operational support to transportation alternatives and have slowly choked our national passenger rail carrier to the brink of collapse. Given the cuts to VIA’s operating budget over the next two years I have to ask whether the plan for VIA is to do away with the transcontinental routes like the Canadian and Ocean and sell off the assets to a private company like the Rocky Mountaineer who wouldn’t run a passenger train for Canadians but for the tourists who currently ride the VIA services? If that’s the case, you can give up on boarding the train at Biggar. Did you ride knowing you wouldn’t be able to in a couple years?

    To be honest, backbenchers have next to no ability to change the opinions of the Prime Ministers office, and with our current PM, I hold very little hope my letters will do anything. But I will still send them to ensure my voice is still capable of expressing my wishes.

    I firmly believe that the taxpayers can and should find the means to fund VIA to where it is useful to most of us. It’s a much greener way to travel, definitely more human, and more economical than paying billions to maintain highways and airways.

    If you wish to open a line of communication, I would like that very much. You have my email address.

    Jon Calon
    Calgary, AB

  13. George Richard Wooldridge
    July 24, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Mr. Rathergurber,

    I am hard working TAXPAYING railway worker from Melville and I am sick of the attitude of your so called government. Railways built Canada and can and will build Canada into the future. I really hope the people of Canada “privatize” your party and government and consign it to the dust bin of history.

    I pay a lot of taxes and work harder than you or your caucus colleagues or your “dear leader” and I am sick of the plundering of public assets and hypocracy your government engages in. Shame on you!

  14. George Bechtel
    July 24, 2012 at 10:05 am

    My wife and I took C.N. Toronto-Vancouver, summer 1964. C.P. return.

    C.N. was growing passenger like mad, a million a year for five years. C.P. passenger count was increasing but barely. In the annual report of C.N. for 1966 it was said that passenger revenue is growing faster than costs and a profit situation should be possible soon. Then with a change of government the policy was to get rid of all passenger trains in Canada within five years. By 1974, passenger traffic was down to where if was in 1964. The trains (read government) abandoned the people. The people did not abandon the trains. To return to the 1960’s may be impossible. But you could study what the did and learn that your-cut-the-trains theory is not wise.

  15. J. P. Wiser
    July 25, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    You cannot compare Amtrak or European trains to Canadian rail service. For one thing, the American coast to coast routes have the ability to pass through densely populated centres on their journey across the US. When the train leaves Toronto in Canada, it gets to Winnipeg – a whole day later – before seeing a city of 650,000 plus people. Another whole day later, it gets to Saskatoon – maybe 300,000 people or so, then into Edmonton with its 1,000,000 or so people. From there, you ride all the way to Vancouver before you find another large city. We just do not have sufficient population nor population centres to support daily travel.

    With respect to the airlines and the roads. There are gas taxes both federal and provincial already in the per litre price of gas that goes to pay for roads. Airlines have all kinds of fees and taxes. A $1 airline ticket will cost you $150 by the time the taxes are factored in. Westjet seem to run profitably, so again, you can’t really compare those modes of transportation to the rails. The price of gas in Europe drives people to the trains as the preferred mode of travel. Combined with their populations, again there is no comparison to Canada.

    Look at the Quebec City to Windsor corridor and even there, you only get population “clumps” as you get near the big cities. From Montreal to Toronto, there is no major city until you get to Ajax, Oshawa, etc., almost to Toronto. From Toronto to Windsor, you really don’t have much other than the city of London about half way there. More trains running on more days are certainly not the answer, especially out here in the west.

  16. Frank Smith
    July 26, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Perhaps the question should be: Why does the federal government spend billions building bigger prisons in contracts that go to government donors when the crime rate has been in a steady decline for 40 years?

  17. Barry Brown
    July 29, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    A few comments regarding your article

    12 passengers at Melville

    Thats pretty good for a town of 4000 people, by that reasoning a train through Taber which is twice as large would load 24 passengers.
    Via rail employees
    I feel sorry for them having to apologize for the obvious shortcoming of the service.
    Slowness of Train
    Tell CN to give passenger trains priority except when oprationally impossible. Could be done by legislation. Right now CN calls the shots. Western Canada gets 57 year old equipment, the Ontario Quebec corridor gets all the new stuff With more modern technology could speeds could be increased. . Rode the train to Vancouver last December. It was clear that the schedule was padded. Three hours late to Jasper, stopped at Blue River because it was ahead of schedule, sat at Kamloops for 1.5 hours because it was early. The trip is scheduled for 26 hours. The Canadian from Calgary to Vancouver use to do the trip in 22 hours.
    Losses 1980 – 2010
    You’ve stacked the figures. there were twice as many trains 1980-1989 with an enormous losses in late 80’s. Via rail has improved cost recovery by such means as eliminating conductors. The increase in losses in recent years is probably due to the poor economy in many parts of Canada (AB and SK exempted)
    Popularity of Via in central Canadian Corridor
    The trains there are relatively fast with max speeds of 79 mph, speed is important. The failure of Calgary – Edmonton rail service was due in part to the slow service.
    Cutbacks of Canadian in Winter
    Might be a good idea , but more information needed. If cutback in winter why not increase beyond 3 trains/wk in summer ?
    Value to Canadian of service for money provided
    Same arguement could be applied to roads, vehicles do not cover costs of roads after registration and gas taxes, difference made up from general revenues.
    As one example highway 4 is four lanes from Lethbridge to Coutts. There is very little population on the road. This appears to be a massive subsidy to the trucking industry. I could go on, think about the cost of the ring road around Edmonton

    Other related comments
    Transportation policy in Canada appears to be summarized as fly business or long distance trips and travel by car otherwise. Other forms of transport will be subsidized as little as possible.

    If cities adopted the attitude that transportation services must recapture all costs, no transportation service would exist with an attendent disfunction which would result. Clearly their operating philosophy is different from that of the federal government.

    Bus travel is often the only means of getting to some places without a car (not always, try getting to Waterton Lakes or Rocky Mountain House without a car ) Bus service stinks. The seats are cramped. Other than express buses, very slow. Stations are nonexistant or minimal. Ex. at Cranbrook you get off the bus at the garage where it is parked for the night and then walk six blocks to find accomodation. Many bus companies are barely profitable and continue to cut back on service.
    In general all public transportation private or government subsidized is a mess. Where coordination of various modes of transport is desireable, the government assumes competition is better.
    The quality of airline service continues to deteriorate and the long term future of some services is questionable. A long time ago I was able to make handsome profits on PWA stocks. If I had held them for a longer term I would have lost every penny. In the last 30 years, shareholders of airlines have subsidized airline service through the losses on their share values. Who is going to invest in this industry longterm when its outlook is so dismal?

    Personally I hope that the government will see the need to promote an cooperative inteconnected transportation containing elements of air, rail,bus and marine service whose objective is to best needs of Canadians for alternatives to having to use cars for most of their transportation needs.
    Have a chat with Anthony Paarl, he is on the board of directors of VIA.