Source Link: globeandmail.com
As the federal government hammers out a forthcoming economic-stimulus package, it should think seriously about helping passenger railways across Canada to follow the example of southern Ontario’s GO Transit by buying up train tracks from CN and Canadian Pacific. This week, GO announced plans to acquire a good chunk of the Toronto area’s network.
The freight operators’ ownership of the vast majority of the country’s tracks is a severe headache for commuter authorities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as VIA Rail, and the greatest obstacle to public investment in Canada’s rail system.
Mere tenants of companies whose business is moving cargo, not people, passenger railways operate at the mercy of freight traffic. The consequences are many.
Passenger trains in Canada often have to pull on to sidings to let freight pass. Switches owned by CN have failed repeatedly in Ontario, inconveniencing tens of thousands of commuters, not to mention periodic freight derailments, one of which completely shut down VIA service between Toronto and Montreal last summer.
The freight railways’ ownership of the tracks makes public investment in upgraded infrastructure less attractive, since riders may not enjoy their full benefits, and transit planners must get private-sector approval for service improvements.
If train travel is to be a viable alternative to driving within and flying between Canada’s metropolitan areas, this situation is unacceptable.
Rectifying it should be part of a comprehensive plan to improve Canadian railways. Not only is this the only G8 country without high-speed trains, but the intercity network depends on 20-year-old diesel locomotives, now being refurbished by VIA for decades more in service. Of the four busiest Canadian airports, three have no rail links, and no trains connect Calgary and Edmonton, just 300 km apart.
Although the Conservative government has pitched in for some limited upgrades to commuter networks and released enough funds to halt VIA’s long decline, much more is needed. Happily, rail agencies already have detailed but largely unfunded investment plans.
A modern rail system should be a principal goal of the infrastructure spending in January’s federal budget. That means making sure that people, not cargo, take priority on the tracks.