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Via (Canada’s Amtrak) faces similar problems

In many respects, Canada is far more European than the United States. It has universal healthcare, a parliamentary government, and is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately, passenger rail service is one area where our neighbors to the north are far more similar to us than the European countries.

Via, Canada’s national passenger rail carrier, came about in much the same way as Amtrak and is also supported by piddly and unreliable federal funds. From Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper:

Via’s problems are mostly not of its own making. It is hamstrung by bottlenecks on key tracks, antiquated switching and signalling technology and, most of all, by a troubled relationship with CN, the freight carrier that owns almost all of its lines, and whose trains periodically derail across them. Freight traffic often has priority over Via trains, putting passengers at the mercy of CN’s schedule.

And successive governments have grumbled about subsidizing Via beyond the bare minimum, while supporting other enterprises that make no profit, such as the national highway system, without complaint.

Sound familiar? Then it also shouldn’t surprise you to learn that like Amtrak, Via has seen a large increase in passenger numbers, while also having to deal with aging tracks and equipment. The Globe and Mail takes a stance very similar to that of Amtrak CEO Alexander Kummant: New high-speed rail (referring to the Quebec – Ontario line currently under study) is fine, but our priority should be bringing our regular tracks up to a speed competitive with automobiles and planes.

Canadians are rightly jealous of the spectacular high-speed railways that have spread across Europe and Asia. That jealousy has prompted some politicians to focus on pie-in-the-sky panaceas for an inadequate rail system, such as the Quebec-Ontario study on high-speed rail announced earlier this year.

While high-speed lines in Central Canada, and between Calgary and Edmonton, would be a huge boon to the national economy, the country cannot afford to wait for decades to pass, and tens of billions of dollars to be appropriated. Modest, unglamorous upgrades to trains and tracks – beyond those included in a very minor improvement program announced by Ottawa last year – would go a long way toward improving Via’s speed and reliability in the interim.

Although I disagree that HSR is a “pie-in-the-sky” measure, upgrading of existing infrastructure is a necessary first step to an improved national (or, since we’re on the topic, continental) rail system. However, if we don’t start planning for HSR now, we won’t have it in the decades to come. We have to prepare for the future as well as deal with today’s realities.

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