On the Need for an Integrated Transit Plan Part 2: The Need to Rescue VIA Rail



In part two of my three-part series on public transportation in southern Ontario in the Kitchener Post, I talked about the role VIA Rail should play. Any role, really. It too is being allowed to die on the vine, which is an absolute tragedy. For this article, I was helped by transportation consultant Greg Gormick, who has some solid ideas about how to improve train travel in southwestern Ontario. If we could couple this to an expanded inter-city bus network, we could significantly improve mobility for people in southwestern Ontario who do not have access to cars.

Since I wrote this article, I believe that the Talgo trains that I referred to as lying mothballed where shipped to Washington State to replace the Talgo equipment that was destroyed by the horrific derailment on the Amtrak Cascade route a few weeks ago. Most of the rest of this article stands, however. It's time to make real use of VIA Rail.

Time to restore investment in VIA Rail

Government letting VIA rail die on the vine, say James Bow

Last week, I talked about the need to improve our intercity transportation by expanding and co-ordinating our services into a wider network spanning southwestern and south-central Ontario. Today, I want to talk about our intercity trains.

I realize I talked about VIA Rail's pressing problems earlier this year, but it bears repeating.

It makes no sense to me that the agency should be contemplating service cuts within the next five years due to equipment shortages when the federal and provincial governments are wasting money studying potential high-speed rail through the region that may only materialize after 10 years, if at all.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Greg Gormick, who is working as a transportation policy adviser to Oxford County, to get a better sense of what is happening with VIA.

Basically, VIA Rail is dying from neglect. Even though ridership is increasing, VIA's federal subsidies are paying only to maintain the status quo. The status quo is not tenable for most of its equipment.

Much of VIA Rail's passenger equipment is more than 50 years old, but it's the newest equipment, Gormick notes, is causing the most maintenance headaches.

The Renaissance Class fleet was purchased as a bargain. The equipment had originally been built in the late 1990s to provide night service through the Channel Tunnel. They were not built to Canadian loading standards, and were never intended to face Canadian conditions.

So, while these passenger cars may have been a bargain when they were bought, a third of the fleet is now out-of-service, being cannibalized for parts to maintain the remaining cars.

As these parts aren't standard and hard to come by, it will get increasingly expensive to keep this fleet in service.

The next newest passenger equipment also have problems. The LRC trains, unveiled in the late 1970s, feature aluminum bodies that are proving expensive to rebuild. Age is also affecting VIA's locomotives, and no moves have been made toward replacing them.

While VIA Rail's maintenance crews perform miracles maintaining these cars and the stainless steel transcontinental cars, this can't go on forever. VIA needs new equipment by 2022 at the latest, and the time to purchase that equipment is now.

Fortunately, options are readily available, if we would just commit to them.

In the U.S., Amtrak and the privately-run Florida East Coast railroad have purchased brand new passenger equipment and locomotives from Siemens. These are tried and true, and could be applied to VIA Rail's network immediately. VIA could even piggyback onto an Amtrak order to obtain a volume discount.

Gormick also notes that VIA could reduce its equipment pressures now, and create buzz by leasing a pair of modern train sets that are available from a company called Talgo. Talgo trains are already in operation between Portland and Seattle, offering comfortable seats, great vistas and Wi-Fi.

A pair of these special train sets were commissioned for service in Wisconsin before the governor backed out. They're gathering dust when they could be moving people.

The cost of completely replacing VIA Rail's equipment comes to $1.5 billion, which isn't cheap, but the cost of delaying this decision is mounting. VIA provides important service throughout southern Ontario and Quebec, and it would be wrong to let it wither.

Rather than study proposals for specialized high-speed trains in the unforeseeable future, the federal and provincial governments need to step up now and make the investments needed to ensure that VIA operates through the next decade.

On the Need for an Integrated Transit Plan Part 1: Expand the Inter-City Bus Network


Bus Shelter in SnowPhoto by Micael Widell from Pexels.

So, back in November, the editors of the Kitchener Post were kind enough to let me ramble on about public transportation for three weeks in a row. My objective was to propose a realignment of inter-city transportation in southern and southwestern Ontario. The file is being ignored by our provincial politicians, and various players are being allowed to operate in neglected isolation. It's time for this to change, starting with our inter-city bus network. Here's what I wrote:

Intercity bus service in desperate need

I speak a lot about public transportation issues on this column. I do so not just because I'm a transit fan, but because I think public transportation should be taken more seriously by people and the politicians they elect.

We have built ourselves an environment where we expect to navigate our lives with a car.

This ignores the fact that not everybody can afford a car. It ignores the fact that not everybody can drive one.

As we get older, more of us are going to fall into those categories. Medical issues will multiply to the point where it will not be safe for ourselves or others to get behind the wheel. When this happens, doctors have a duty to report such people to the ministry of transportation. The roads are safer for this.

And without public transportation, these people become prisoners in their own home. In many of our neighbourhoods, it's not convenient to walk to work, to stores or to community services.

So, until the age of the electric self-driving car dawns, we have an obligation to our elderly, our children, and those struggling to make ends meet to ensure that some level of mobility is provided in our cities. It's the same reason why we need to keep our sidewalks shovelled this winter.

It would be nice if such a service could be provided by a profitable business, but we already subsidize our automobile use by billions of dollars in this province alone through tax-funded road maintenance and construction, not to mention free parking.

This is why, in 1945, most municipal public transit agencies across North America were profitable businesses and, by 1965, none of them were.

Earlier this month, Greyhound announced they were cutting bus service between Kitchener and Guelph. It was another in a series of frustrating announcements regarding service cuts by the agency over the past few years.

In its release, Greyhound blamed GO Transit for the service cuts, even though GO Transit doesn't provide bus service between Kitchener and Guelph.

In my opinion, Greyhound's frustrations were misplaced. The real cause of their lost profitability is the highly subsidized automobiles they share the road with.

True, GO Transit is subsidized -- albeit by the lowest percentage of any transit agency in North America -- but we acknowledge that GO's subsidy is an investment in the economy of south-central Ontario.

Without GO Transit, our workers would be a lot less productive, stuck in traffic, and we would have to raise taxes to pay for the increased road construction and maintenance.

Greyhound can't make a profit with its select routes because it doesn't have GO's network to feed them, but they cannot profitably operate GO's network of routes at the required service levels, or else they would have already done so.

With a provincial election on the horizon, the time has come to acknowledge the need for enhanced public transportation across this province, starting with our intercity buses. We need to buy out Greyhound's remaining routes and incorporate them into GO Transit's network.

Imagine being able to catch GO buses in Kitchener and riding them to Guelph, Hamilton or Aldershot to connect with the GO services there. Imagine if the Greyhound Toronto Express charged GO fares instead.

And we need to apply this thinking outside of south-central Ontario. The intercity bus network of southwestern Ontario is beyond anemic, now. This means increased isolation within those communities.

They deserve better, and so do we.

Dear Diary


Writing with Coffee

Sixteen years later, I'm still here.

I suppose that's good news.

I haven't been posting here as much as I should, but I haven't ever gotten up the courage to shut down this blog, or say goodbye, or repurpose things. And I think only part of the reason is because it's been going for so long.

Looking back, I am amazed at all of the changes this blog has been here for. The birth of my daughters, the fall of the Liberal government. The rise of the Conservative government. The fall of the Conservative government, and the rise of the Liberals again. I remember when this blog had a lot more traffic, and there was a Canadian blogosphere community out there, where we engaged in dialogue, like a nationwide coffee klatch.

Five years ago, the air went out of the Canadian blogosphere. Blogs became passe, and the audiences moved to Twitter and Facebook. And then we sort of drifted apart.

But I'm still here because now that this is no longer a blog, it is a diary. It is a journal. I can still practise my writing. Looking back on my posts have brought up memories that would otherwise have been forgotten. As before, this blog is about me, and as I continue to benefit from it, so it will continue to be about me.

Besides, in the near future, I may have some promotional work to do with soon-to-be-released books.

In the meantime, it has been shockingly busy, here. I've powered through no less than five non-fiction book commissions this past month. They say freelance work is either feast or famine, and these past few weeks have been pretty feasty. I do like the work, although I'm disappointed that I've not been able to keep working on The Sun Runners. Still, perhaps later this month, as the non-fiction projects ebb, I'll be able to push on. I'm over 72,000 words on this project, and am hopeful of finishing a draft of the novel by the end of March.

And I have a new idea rattling around my brain. It's sort of a sequel to The Sun Runners, in that it's in the shared universe. I've greatly enjoyed setting up the universe of the colonies of Earth dealing with the fact that the Earth has collapsed. The next volume will deal with Venus and Mars, and how these two sisters rework their relationship once Mother Earth slips away. I'm calling it The Cloud Riders. Maybe I'll have a scene to show you later.

Sixteen years ago, I was unpublished, and had just started working on the story that would become The Unwritten Girl. Today, I have over fifty books with my name on them, including four fiction novels. Sixteen years from now, God willing, I will be 61. My daughters will be adults, and the world may be a very different place indeed.

And maybe, just maybe, we can read all about those changes here.