Via Rail has spent its entire sorry life being unjustly compared to its European cousins. Since its 1977 creation by Pierre Trudeau, the federal Crown corporation has been dismissed by anyone who has taken France's TGV or Spain's AVE as a sorry excuse for a passenger train service.
Such comparisons are off the rails. The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) and AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) may be fast – running at up to 300 kilometres an hour, provided they run on dedicated tracks. (Not all of them do.) But they are financial sinkholes that owe their existence more to vote-buying than to sound economics. There is little evidence that they lead to enhanced productivity or economic activity beyond the construction phase.
Opaque accounting makes it hard to pin down just how much ill-conceived high-speed rail projects have really cost European taxpayers. Apart from the popular Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Barcelona lines – which hit the "sweet spot" for high-speed rail service in terms of distance and traffic densities – most TGV and AVE lines are underused. And that's despite the road tolls and higher gas taxes that make travelling by car far more expensive in Europe.
Thankfully, federal governments here have had the good sense to ignore repeated calls for high-speed rail in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Even if you could build a plausible case for a high-speed train between Montreal and Toronto – with no stops in between – the politics of buying off the airlines and communities bypassed by the plan would overwhelm the economics of it.
Via itself gave up on high-speed rail long ago. Instead, it is proposing a quintessentially Canadian compromise with its so-called High Frequency Rail (HFR) plan. It would see Via's trains travel on dedicated tracks at speeds of up to 180 kilometres an hour, cutting the current five-hour trip between Toronto and Montreal to about 3.5 hours.
Experts have wasted no time poking holes in the $4-billion proposal, in part because Via has been stingy with technical details. Via has spent more time dangling carrots at small-town mayors, so they'll pressure Ottawa on its behalf, than explaining how it would overcome current logistical and competitive obstacles preventing HFR service to Toronto's Union Station or Montreal's Gare Centrale.
But without moving to new dedicated tracks that it no longer has to share with CN or CP freight trains, Via Rail is doomed to die a slow death. Increasing freight traffic will mean more frequent delays for passenger trains, leading to ridership declines and requiring Via to rely on higher federal operating subsidies. Eventually, a government will come along that pulls the plug.
So, it's now or never for Via. Either this federal government steps up to maintain a viable (albeit subsidized) passenger rail service in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, or it will condemn Via to the junk yard. And make no mistake, that's precisely where its competitors would like to see it end up.
Why else would the Greater Toronto Airports Authority hatch a plan to make Pearson airport a new regional transportation hub with a high-speed rail link to Windsor, Ont., if not to sabotage Via Rail's HFR proposal? The airlines aren't threatened by increased rail service in southwestern Ontario. But their bread-and-butter Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal routes would face stiffer competition if Via's proposed HFR service is fast-tracked by Justin Trudeau's government.
Via's project – which, if history is any guide, could cost twice its $4-billion-to-$6-billion estimate with partially electrified tracks and modern rail cars and locomotives – would compete with the GTAA project for funding from the new Canada Infrastructure Bank. Private investors are unlikely to want to back both, since each detracts from the other. Indeed, Via has lost out on potential business over the years as a result of a lack of co-ordination and joint planning with commuter rail authorities in Toronto and Montreal. The Ontario government's recent decision to move forward with feasibility studies on a high-speed rail service in southwestern Ontario puts additional pressure on Ottawa to makes its choice soon.
It should choose Via. The Crown corporation's current federal operating subsidy amounts to 21 cents per passenger mile in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, a sum comparable to or lower than subsidies for conventional passenger rail services in Europe. Via relies on much higher per-passenger subsidies on its Montreal-Halifax or Toronto-Vancouver routes and Ottawa should spin off those and other remote routes if it wants to maintain them, freeing Via to operate on a purely commercial basis.
Via argues its HFR plan would increase ridership by 150 per cent – to about 10 million passengers by 2030 – and cut carbon emissions by up to 14 million tonnes by 2050. Best of all, it would allow Via to "substantially reduce and possibly eliminate" its federal operating subsidy.
Ottawa should climb on board.