Why VIA Rail Canada’s high frequency rail plan is a dud

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Thursday, July 11, 2019

Normally a proposed passenger-only rail route is cause for celebration in North America. Pop the champagne cork for the high-speed route Virgin Trains USA is building to Orlando, Fla., for example, or the Texas Central Railroad’s ambitious plan to link Dallas and Houston.

But don’t break out the bubbly for VIA Rail Canada’s dream of cobbling together a dedicated passenger route from abandoned, lightly used, and new rail lines in its crucial Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor.

Last month VIA’s $4 billion plan got a $71 million boost that will fund additional feasibility studies. It shouldn’t take $71 million to figure out the plan is fatally flawed. Why? Because it won’t accomplish its chief aim: Eliminating the mind-boggling delays related to sharing tracks with Canadian National freight trains.

VIA Rail's proposed new route between Toronto and Quebec City. Credit: VIA Rail Canada

To be successful, passenger service needs to be fast, frequent, and dependable. VIA’s current service is faster than driving between Canada’s two biggest cities, Toronto and Montreal. It’s fairly frequent, too, with seven weekday departures between Toronto and Montreal. But it’s not dependable. On-time performance is in the low 70% range for the entire Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor. VIA blames the late trains on interference from CN freights, primarily on the double-track route linking Toronto and Montreal.

So you can understand why VIA would lobby the Canadian government for a dedicated passenger route. Last year VIA’s Eastern Corridor, the Canadian equivalent of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, carried three-quarters of VIA’s entire ridership. It stands to reason that you can fill more seats with service that’s faster, more frequent, and more reliable.

There’s much to like in VIA’s so-called high frequency rail plan. Transit times on the new corridor, VIA says, would be 25% faster than the current schedules, which cover Toronto-Montreal in about 5 hours. The new corridor would permit 110 mph operation, up from the current maximum of 100 on some sections of CN. VIA could provide more frequent service without begging CN for permission to run additional trains. And VIA projects 95% on-time performance on its own tracks.

Detail view of station stops on the proposed and current Toronto to Quebec City routes. Credit: VIA Rail Canada

But the whole plan falls down in the busy terminal areas in and around Toronto and Montreal. That’s where VIA’s trains would still have to negotiate trackage thick with freight and commuter traffic.

Transport Canada’s solution to this problem is laughable. “VIA Rail Canada would work with track owners to conclude necessary agreements and ensure that both freight and passenger operations can go smoothly,” a spokeswoman says.

Wait, you say. Doesn’t VIA already have such an agreement with CN?

Yes, it does. And it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on because CN shows little interest in keeping VIA’s trains on time. Why Transport Canada would expect a new piece of paper to change that is a mystery – and a $4 billion mystery, at that.

Unlike Amtrak, VIA has no statutory right to preference on host railroads, and its contract with CN apparently confers no such priority. (Of course, you could look at on-time performance on some Amtrak routes and conclude this right is not all it’s cracked up to be.) In any event, CN says its rail traffic controllers work to balance the needs of passenger, commuter, and freight traffic and that it gives passenger trains priority when possible.

VIA has said that passenger trains and freight trains are simply incompatible. What’s required, the thinking goes, is separate routes for passenger and freight. That’s never been true. If it were, Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains would not have clocked 96% reliability last year on Canadian Pacific trackage between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Keeping passenger and freight trains on time takes a combination of operational discipline, the right track capacity, and a willingness to make it work. CN takes pride in its operational discipline, and executives say the Eastern portion of the railroad, between Chicago and Halifax, is underutilized. What’s missing, it seems, is a willingness to expedite VIA trains.

VIA needs a cooperative host railroad more than it needs a new route that would bypass intermediate population centers, face opposition from the not-in-my-backyard crowd, take years to build, and in the end would still have to rely on shared trackage in key areas.

Also a monumental problem without an apparent solution: Squeezing extra trains into Toronto Union Station and Central Station in Montreal on new approaches that would only complicate operations and increase conflicts with freight and commuter traffic.

It’s commendable that VIA wants to control its own fate. But this plan won’t give VIA the control it needs to succeed. Mainline delays would almost certainly be reduced, but terminal delays would likely worsen, potentially leaving service no better off after the expense of 4 billion loonies.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @bybillstephens

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