Viarail is great for tourists – free wifi, comfortable seats, speeds slow enough so you can take a picture out the window without fear of blurring. However, it isn’t ideal for when you actually want to get somewhere: prohibitively high ticket prices for families, groups and, often, individuals, infrequent service, service only to where it’s convenient for Viarail to place a station, poorly coordinated schedules… It’s a far cry from most other industrialised countries. So, in order to actually put our national rail system to good use, I propose a re-adjustment of priorities, new types of service and measures to actually encourage people to leave their cars at home.

Let’s first of all explore why society should want people to not take their cars on intercity trips.

First of all, there’s security: According to Transport Canada, in 2008, there were 2 419 recorded deaths on roads, 32 690% more than the rail deaths that year. Taking into account only deaths on passenger rail, there were about 80 in the past century.

The second advantage is a reduction in the GhG emissions since, according to UCBerkeley, the average train in the US (carrying the average number of passengers) will pollute only half of what the average sedan will for the same distance per person.

Now, this is my proposal to make passenger rail in this country useful and usable enough to draw people off the roads and onto the rails.

1. Be everywhere.

When I lived in Germany for a student exchange, I took the train to Kaisersesch. Do you know where that is? Neither does anyone not from Kaisersesch. It’s a town of less than 3 000 in the countryside of Rheinland-Pfalz. I went there to visit some friends and I did it by train. Yes, there is a train station, or more accurately a haltepunkt , a ‘stop-spot’.

Kaisersesch Haltepunkt (stadt-land-bahn.de)

This small town, however, is treated to 15 daily departures towards the nearest urban centre (Koblenz), more than Ottawa or Montreal could dream of. It can do this because, instead of using large, inter-city or commuter trains, it employs a fleet of small vehicles without a crew on the platforms or in the train (besides the conductor, of course) and uses existing track also used by freight.

Viarail should make this one of its goals: to provide service to small towns and centres to offer the possibility of not using an automobile with low-cost and no-frills infrastructure and small rolling-stock. At a cost of about $100 000 per platform, $4M per train and the sharing of existing railways with freight, such a system would have the potential to be put in place at a very low cost or even tried on a trial basis along any existing railway tracks. These local lines would do the milk-runs from regional urban centres to towns, not as commuter lines, but as all-day service to give the residents of these small towns access to the city’s services. Perhaps not on the scale of 15 trains per day, but one every hour or two along with increased service for peak hours would provide sufficient access. Such service could even turn a profit since, basing myself loosely on operating costs of commuter rail and tramways, it would cost about $30-50/h per train including maintenance, so every train would only have to carry 12-20 people (or about 10% full) paying $2.50 each for it to start turning a profit.

Already in most European countries (I know how much of a cliché that is now), these types of trains bring the services and advantages of the city to the country, stemming the exodus of people from towns, and bringing the nature of the country to city folk. This is currently exclusive domain of the automobile, but with petrolium prices with nowhere to go but up and an increasingly large portion of the population not driving (by choice, old age or financial restriction), Via can corner this market and make itself useful.

Just in Westphalia, a German state 300km across, the rail network extends to every nook and cranny with regional and local trains.

2. Be quick

This is a pretty short point: make the interurban trains faster than driving or taking the plane. By taking the plane, I’m including time to get to the airport, security, the flight, baggage pickup and getting to the destination city from the airport. The Windsor-Quebec lines should all have their own, reserved track because it’s very common for freight trains to add upwards of an hour to the travel time since they have priority. With a reserved, graded track, trains could easily attain 160km/h, making an Ottawa-Toronto trip only two and a half hours, an Ottawa-Montréal less than an hour and a half and a Toronto-Montreal trip but a mere three hours 15 minutes. Four hours is about the longest you want to spend in a train when you need to be somewhere before taking a plane becomes quicker.

3. Be cheap and group-friendly

Taking a train alone is a bit of an expense: a $100 round-trip is much more than what you’ll pay for your car’s gas (though not if you include the price of the car, insurance, and so on). However, you can take your family or your friends in the car. So in a sedan, it’ll cost about $14 a person for the round trip, whereas it would be seventeen times more expensive.

This is a gap that needs to be closed and, if possible, reversed.

On highways, we need to stop being so toll-shy. Not only does it put a tangible price on the money needed to maintain the roads (it ain’t free) instead of just having it appear under the camouflage of taxes (why should roads be 100% funded by the public purse and not transit?).

As for rail prices, they need to be heavily subsidized, perhaps with the tolls. The maximum second-class ticket price should be set by the cost of getting from one point to another with the average mileage of passenger vehicles. So, if a trip to Toronto and back can be made on a $70 tank of gas, that should be the maximum price of a round-trip train ticket.

Groups and families also need to be encouraged to travel on rail. In Germany, the Schönewochenendeticket (Lovely weekend ticket), gave unlimited travel within one state for $35 for a weekend for between 1 and 5 people. That meant that traveling alone or traveling with 4 family members cost the same. I propose something similar in Canada, whereby people are encouraged to bring people along as opposed to driving, which also costs the same, no matter how many people are in the car. 

4. Be reliable and versatile.

This point’s a little more chicken-and-egg. You want there to be enough daily departures between destinations for people to have choices and options, but there also need to be enough demand for it to be profitable. However, I do want to stress the importance of trains throughout the day and evening. You can catch a 1am bus, but trains stop running at 19h. For anyone who wants to finish a day of work or school before going off somewhere, this is rather inconvenient. To make it more cost-efficient to run emptier trains for service throughout the day, reduce the number of trains, the staff on-board (there really don’t need to be that many anyways) and increase the number of stops along the way to try to milk ridership.

And arrive on-time. People want to feel dignified and respected with their choices, so show them that respect with trains that arrive when they’re supposed to and explanations when they don’t. It’s just polite.

So all of my recommendations aim to make to make the train cheaper and faster than the car and accessible and desirable to everyone. But there are still three points I’d like to touch on:

High Speed Rail

Ah, HSR, the holy grail of public investment. I’ve ridden the German InterCity Express (ICE) and the TGV and it feels great to see the countryside fly past in a satisfying blur, but I’m not in favour of it for Canada. Yet. Here’s why.

For all its great speed, HSR (High Speed Rail) in Canada would be built at the detriment of the rail network and the everyperson because it is very expensive: at an estimated $10B, there is no way that tickets could be cheaper than gas or that there would be any left over to improve rail access in cities other than Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec.

The cheapest one-way, second-class TGV ticket between Paris and Lyon is $90 CAD. A round-trip would be more than twice as expensive than the equivalent car trip. So, all of a sudden, rail is no longer viable for students and seniors (the groups the most likely not to have a car) and impossible for families (a Paris-Lyon round-trip for a family of 4 would surpass the price of a plane ticket across the Atlantic).

The second point wasn’t really a problem in Europe since they still had established passenger rail systems. Here in Canada, where it almost needs to be built from scratch, HSR would most likely take up all the funds that could otherwise create a full network.

I definitely agree that passenger rail needs to connect large centres quickly, but at under four hours, it already beats out all other modes of transportation in terms of total time needed for travel at a cost many orders smaller than what would be needed for HSR, which requires much more trackwork than what is needed for the speeds I propose. I’m not saying that HSR will be a permanent bad choice for Canada – once we have an established, well-used network, we could start building HSR track a bit at a time and, once completed, we could buy HSR-capable vehicles. However, in a time when what’s really needed is the creation of a rail network, building high speed rail is running before walking.

Trans-Canadian routes

Until we have trains that can do the distance in a time comparable to taking a plane, transcanadian routes will belong to the tourist. The possible exception to this might eventually be a Montreal-Halifax through Sherbrooke and Bangor (Maine) which, at 160km/h, could be done in about five hours. Of course, there are a whole bunch of complications with it crossing the border and the investment being rather large for a relatively low-demand line.

Remote service

In remote areas such as Churchill, Abitibi, Prince Rupert, etc, rail service is provided since it’s one of the responsibilities of Via rail and I think that should continue, albeit with smaller capacity. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that there are fewer than 200 people who travel to Val d’Or on a daily basis. So, use smaller trains (akin to the local trains) and provide cheaper service to make the south and its services accessible to these communities fortunate enough to have rail in the first place.

So there it is: a humble proposal for the creation of a rail network reliable, fast, cheap and present enough to provide a real alternative to the automobile. I think this is all feasible without breaking the bank (maybe the cost of 1 F-35 😉 ), but that the advantages, both in terms of spin-off and reduced need for highway maintenance and expansion will be great in the short-, but especially in the long-term.


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