Dan Rankin, Special to the Gazette
In response to the recent reduction of VIA Rail service between Stratford and Toronto, several dozen local residents gathered in the City Hall auditorium last Wednesday to discuss the future of passenger rail in the city.
It was a fitting topic, as Nov. 7 marked the 127th anniversary of the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
But despite its lengthy history, keynote speaker Greg Gormick said the future of passenger rail service in the country looks much less certain.
“They’re saying these cuts are a modernization and an evolution,” said Gormick, director of advocacy group Transport Action’s public outreach project National Dream Renewed. “Cutting your service is a funny way to modernize it.”
As part of nationwide cuts by VIA, as of Nov. 1, train 86, which departed Stratford around 6 a.m. bound for Toronto, and train 89, which arrived in Stratford from Toronto at 12:30 a.m., have both been discontinued.
Gormick called the network of service still provided by VIA “skeletal,” and said residents in Southwestern Ontario should expect further service reductions in the future.
“More cuts are coming, no matter what VIA tells you,” he said. “Consider the service dead all the way through London on to Sarnia. That’s what VIA has in mind.”
In June, VIA president and CEO Marc Laliberté said changes to VIA service match the market demand and offer good value to customers and taxpayers.
“Mandatory services in regions where there are limited transportation alternatives will remain,” he said. “We are not eliminating rail service on any routes where we operate today and we are maintaining the flexibility to adjust service levels in the future, as customer needs evolve.”
Members of the government and public treat VIA as a subsidy unfairly, while similarly subsidized transportation systems such as highways and airports are treated as investments, said Gormick.
“I’m not quite sure why passenger trains are subsidies but all those other things are investments,” he said. “They’re profitable in what they pump back into the community and the economy. They do more than just consume a small subsidy. They pay back.”
Many of the issues currently being faced by VIA have persisted because there is no legislation in place for the crown corporation, Gormick said.
“The key flaw in VIA is that there is no VIA Rail Canada Act,” he suggested. “It’s a shifting target as to what VIA’s rights, obligations and objectives are.”
As it stands, VIA can make service changes without public hearings, its management is appointed by the cabinet, it’s not accountable to MPs and it’s only required to make a limited amount of data available to the public, Gormick said. This is in contrast to VIA Rail’s American counterpart, Amtrak.
“Amtrak has a lot of advantages that VIA doesn’t,” he said. “It’s supported by both the states and the municipalities.”
The National Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 got Amtrak started “the right way,” he said.
“It set out all of its goals and targets and makes Amtrak accountable,” Gormick added. “You can’t get away with a service change in the United States without going to Congress. The budget is approved by the full Congress.”
Before opening the floor for questions, Gormick said Transport Action had “taken the next step” in addressing the VIA cuts.
“On Oct. 31, we asked the auditor general to step in and do a full investigation of the situation,” he said. “We’re hoping that might wake a few MPs in Ottawa up. They need to look at the financial problems, the operational problems, the managerial problems and the legislative problems. We’re hoping this will really result in a big change.
“We should be looking at not just restoring what we’ve lost in this latest round of cuts, we should be looking at designing a perfect, proper, balanced rail passenger network.”
Stratford resident Elizabeth Ainslie was one of the attendees at the meeting who is affected by the reduced train service.
“I have to go to Toronto each week,” she said. “If they cut service to Stratford, because I haven’t got a car and because there isn’t a bus, I have no way of getting out of town. I really rely on that morning train.”
She’s also concerned about the direction Canada is moving in its treatment of passenger rail service in contrast to many other countries.
“It’s rather embarrassing that we, of all the western countries, have the poorest public transportation system because we’re so reliant on cars,” she said. “As of now, I’m going to become involved.”
Mayor Dan Mathieson told the Gazette after the meeting he has begun a dialogue with other mayors around the province and the country with the intention of creating a unified front capable of getting some attention.
“We’ve now taken this issue on to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and are trying to engage a dialogue amongst mayors in all communities,” he said. “These cuts affected every province in the country, and what we’re trying to do in this situation is to create a national issue that we can take through the FCM to the federal government.
“They need to hear the stories so they hear how it affects everyday life for people.”