Since Via Rail assumed responsibility for passenger rail service from Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) and Canadian National Railway (CN) in the early 1970s, it has in every respect failed to find its feet.
It doesn't help that it needs to run its trains on the busy freight-oriented tracks of its original owners. Both CN and CP see passenger trains as an inconvenience and charge accordingly for track access while often giving freight trains priority. But perhaps the biggest impediment to Via Rail is that it is merely a Canadian federal government budget item with no legal framework to protect it. Consequently it is fair game for cronyism and political dogma.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of Via Rail is that, beneath its dowdy and poorly-marketed exterior, it has great respect for customers. Trains cannot be oversold, meaning that everyone gets a seat, and Via 1, the first class service, provides excellent at-seat dining and other amenities that appeal to business and up-market personal travellers. Free, upgraded Wi-Fi allows passengers to communicate with the outside world at will.
One would therefore assume that this is a recipe for success against short-haul air travel and grinding car and bus journeys. But, sadly, successive federal governments in Canada have looked at Via Rail's relatively modest subsidy, listened more intently to airlines and the roads lobby, installed management focused on cost-recovery, and continued to shrink services. Marketing has been lacklustre, at best.
The question asked by many passenger rail experts is why is Canada bucking the G8 trend towards greater investment? Politicians will answer that "it is the subsidy" and "population density". Neither of these hold water when compared with other western countries. Conveniently forgotten is that all transport modes are government subsidised, directly or indirectly, and Via Rail's subsidy, even prior to the latest round of operating budget cutbacks, was a comparative pittance.
Other G8 countries have solidly grasped the fact that incremental passenger rail service expansion encourages business investment, particularly by the new generation of "healthy" post-industrial companies. It reduces greenhouse gas emission per passenger kilometre, provides an alternative to often fragile short-haul air services, better suits emerging demographic mixes, and facilitates tourism. Visitors to Canada's tourist hotspots, including Niagara Falls in Ontario and Jasper in Alberta, are often stunned to find vestigial rail services to both. Jitney-buses and rental cars are the norm. Embarrassingly, Amtrak, Via Rail's US equivalent, is the only provider of long-distance trains serving the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
Via Rail's current trajectory is towards the more lucrative Toronto - Ottawa - Montreal corridor with perhaps limited regional service to London, Ontario. Service reductions on long-distance routes including the world-renowned Canadian Toronto - Vancouver service and the Ocean between Montreal and Halifax indicate privatisation or abandonment.
So, apart from some regional commuter services, Canadians will have to manage without a decent national passenger train service. There have been howls of protest by some individuals and advocacy groups but the Harper government and Via Rail management have been tin-eared and very opaque on the whole matter. Also odd is that recent appointees to Via's board appear bereft of any passenger train operating or marketing experience.
Apparently Canadian travellers will need to be satisfied with either roads or aeroplanes for the foreseeable future. It seems to be consistent with the Harper government thumbing its nose on climate-change and environmental issues and tarnishing Canada's international image of crystal-clear lakes, awe-inspiring mountainscapes, wheat-laden prairie and the occasional moose, browsing quietly in the early morning mist. This may be enough to discourage investment by businesses with a future such as technology and advanced manufacturing, and it does not help tourism, either.
For now Canada may prosper on the proceeds of resources while making almost no effort to decarbonise its economy. But, by ignoring what the rest of the G8 is doing to make its transport more convenient, cleaner, sustainable and robust, it, in turn, risks being ignored by those with money, talent and a very different view of the future. The United States appears to have figured this out already and is investing in long-distance and regional rail. Via Rail needs an Act of Parliament, a mandate for something other than failure, visionary leadership and freedom from political dogma and tinkering. Canada also needs to understand what others in the G8 and beyond are doing and why.