What's killing passenger rail in Canada? A lack of funding or sense of urgency

A cargo train derailed in July near Paris, ON — a small, quiet town in the middle of VIA Rail’s Windsor and London to Toronto service. The crash was harmless with the train carrying only drywall, but it highlights an issue with passenger rail safety because VIA’s trains travel on the same tracks as cargo trains — ones often transporting dangerous goods.

That’s not to say that putting passenger trains on their own tracks would prevent all crashes from occurring, but it would bring the number down. The train crashes that took place in Hinton and Lac-Mégantic were the fault of rail workers, the OC Transpo bus crash was the fault of the bus driver and the Burlington derailment was the only accident in the last 50 years to be blamed on the train crew.


Incidents like these are part of the normal operating environment for VIA, which has never been able to operate on its own tracks. When it was a division in CN and CP, it operated alongside freight trains, and still does to this day.

That’s just one reason for the decline in passenger rail service, a trend that’s been happening since before passenger train operation was passed down from CN and CP to VIA Rail Canada. Budget cuts are the norm for VIA, which is funded primarily by fares and government subsidies:

  • Budget cuts in 1981 led to a 40 percent reduction in service, with a 55 percent service reduction in 1990

  • In 2012, around 200 frontline jobs were cut, resulting in many stations becoming unmanned

  • Train service to Niagara Falls, Sarnia, Windsor and London was cut or eliminated altogether

A VIA Rail train stopped at London station, a main interchange on the Sarnia-Toronto and Windsor-Toronto lines.

A VIA Rail train stopped at London station, a main interchange on the Sarnia-Toronto and Windsor-Toronto lines.

And to make matters worse, the $923 million capital renewal program VIA performed as an attempt at modernising itself failed to live up to its promise. The money was supposed to go into renewing its fleet of trains, modernising stations and other assets, but it’s almost impossible to notice any change in the station. The legacy fleet of trains will be renewed by 2020 for $200 million, and once the new fleet arrives, these older trains will be operating on regional and long-distance routes.

The beginning of VIA

Before being able to comprehend the issues VIA is facing today, there’s several important points that need to be understood:

  • VIA Rail was formed in ‘77 when CN separated its passenger rail services, including the Evangeline from Yarmouth to Halifax, NS and the Super Continental, from its freight operations

  • The organisation was created by an Order in Council, meaning it’s unable to look for outside funding — a big reason why budget cuts impact it so badly

  • Trains in VIA’s fleet are capable of running at speeds of more than 160 km/h, but are unable to go faster than around 100 km/h because they share tracks with freight trains, the Toronto Star reports

  • Passenger rail services in Canada don’t operate on dedicated tracks (excluding some short sections which are owned by Metrolinx in the GTA, who itself operates shorter intercity routes) — and it to pay right-of-way fees to run trains on tracks, which is less profitable than running freight

CNHBRCPVia RailMetrolinxGEXR

A big problem is that VIA owns only 186 of the 1,099 kilometres that it operates in the Corridor — a term the organisation uses to classify service stretching from Windsor and Sarnia in the east all the way to Quebec City. That’s a lot of train service to be running on track it doesn’t own — the small areas it does are the Chatham-Windsor and Brockville-Smith Falls-Ottawa-Coteau stretches. That’s great for passengers travelling short distances, but for trips from Toronto to Montreal, Kingston or London, VIA is completely at the mercy of CN, and it knows it:

As the track owner, CN will naturally favour its trains. As noted earlier, unlike elsewhere, passenger trains in Canada do not have operational priority. CN can essentially veto or unilaterally alter any request to improve passenger travel times and frequencies.

This causes issues with on-time performance, resulting in a cascade of delays. Trains, like buses and planes, are used for at least a couple trips per day, so if a train is delayed travelling from Toronto to Montreal, it’s going to be delayed heading back to Toronto on the return trip. We have how these delays stack up in a previous article about the NYC Subway.

VIA Rail on-time performance

A plan for dedicated tracks

You can see from the chart above that VIA’s on-time performance isn’t the best — averaging 71.55 percent since Q1 2015. And since VIA doesn’t own much of the track it runs on, it’s at the mercy of freight companies who are interested in squeezing out as much profit as possible. The main way they’re able to do this is prioritising freight shipments (often containing oil, building materials or other profitable products) over passenger rail, because the fee Via pays is small compared to the money they make otherwise.

But VIA Rail has released a business case for its high-frequency rail proposal, which would see new dedicated tracks built and stations opened at Eglinton, Peterborough, Laval, Trois-Rivières and Québec City’s Jean Lesage International Airport. The cost of the expansion is estimated at $4 billion, according to The Globe and Mail, plus another $2 billion if electric trains are going to be running on the new tracks.

There’s lots of benefits if VIA were to own the tracks it runs on, the crown corporation explains:

  • Train speeds of up to 177 kilometres per hour, reducing a trip from Ottawa to Toronto from 4:30 to as low as 3:15

  • Additional frequencies both by introducing quicker times (quicker trips equal more trips available to make) and because of track dedicated to passenger trains

  • Plus approximately 72 percent of passengers travelled between Toronto-Quebec City in 2018, according to Transport Canada statistics

And the good news doesn’t stop there: in June, VIA was given $71 million to design the plans for dedicated tracks from Ontario to Quebec, including how it’s new $989 million fleet of trains will seamlessly move between the dedicated tracks and local transit system tracks in Montreal and Toronto.

It’s important to note, however, that this funding isn’t a sign that high-frequency rail will become a reality in Canada. It’s a good first step in the process to see whether business cases and financial predictions (essentially calculating the bang-for-buck factor), but there’s still a long way to go before we might see new passenger rail tracks built.

📸: Wikipedia 📈: VIA Rail 2018-2022 Corporate Plan