We must modernize passenger rail service across Canada

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be able to pursue a question I originally asked in this place on November 8 of last year.

I preface my question by talking about a quite remarkable program in my riding. A local public high school, Claremont Secondary School, raises money every year for Rails to Relevance. Kids from Claremont Secondary School get on a train in Vancouver and make their way to Ottawa. They also tour Montreal and Quebec City. The extraordinary learning experience of being on a train is irreplaceable. I ride with them as often as I can and discuss with them Westminster parliamentary democracy and the nature of Canada’s democracy. It is quite an extraordinary experience, and one far too few Canadians have, of travelling this country by rail.

The Minister of Transport gave a very good answer that day. He said that he was very committed to passenger rail service. Therefore, one might ask why I am up at adjournment proceedings still concerned.

I am concerned because I am not sure that the management of VIA Rail understands the importance of passenger rail service across Canada. I know that the data collection about the people who use VIA Rail is often misleading.

I can give an example. I know that the Quebec-Windsor corridor, particularly since this government came to office, has had more money, and the schedules have been improved. However, on the service for Canadians from Montreal to Halifax, called “The Ocean” line, and from Toronto to Vancouver, called “The Canadian” line, the impression one gets from the way that service is run is that it is essentially a high-end, land-based cruise for tourists. The data collected by VIA Rail, when I last spoke to it about this, would suggest that this is the case.

It is not until one visits the economy sections of the train that one finds local transit. There are families, because while it is cheaper to fly from Toronto to Vancouver than it is to take the train, if one has small children and is travelling from Edmonton to Winnipeg, it is definitely not cheaper to fly. VIA Rail has discounts for seniors and discounts children.

If people want a cheaper way to travel, they are better off in the economy section of the train and bringing their own food. This is unfortunate. In the old days, VIA Rail would allow someone from economy to go forward and buy in the dining car. We have created a high-end luxury travel experience, and if that is how it is perceived, service for passenger rail will be at risk.

The report commissioned by the previous government, and prepared under former minister Emerson’s guidance, basically said that all support for passenger rail from Toronto west and Montreal east should be eliminated.

What I am pleading for is that the management at VIA Rail, with the leadership of this government, recognize that we need a legislative framework for VIA Rail, just as the U.S. has for Amtrak. I have a private member’s bill to that effect. We need to fund VIA Rail and conceive of it as part of a national transportation system in the context of a post-carbon economy. We need to do much more to modernize rail.

Where I live in Saanich—Gulf Islands, we used to have a Victoria to Courtenay daily railroad, the island corridor rail service. It needs funding. Where I used to live in Cape Breton Island, we used to have service from Halifax to Sydney. We used to have service a couple of times a day from Halifax to Yarmouth or from Halifax to Wolfville. There are many rail lines across this country that are still in place and could provide low-cost, low-carbon, efficient, modern passenger service.

Karen McCrimmon – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands for her advocacy.

Let me start by reassuring her that the government is and has always been committed to passenger rail services as we recognize the value and historical importance of such services to the Canadian public. Canada’s iconic coast to coast rail system highlights the connectivity and the unity of our country, while our intercity passenger rail also addresses many key mobility needs of Canadians. It does this by providing accessible transportation options for persons with disabilities and connecting communities with little or no alternative year-round public transportation.

Moreover, passenger rail is often acknowledged as a fuel-efficient means of transportation, thereby helping us lessen our carbon footprint on the environment. On this we definitely agree.

The minister’s mandate is to ensure that the Canadian transportation system supports our economic growth while providing a service that is safe, reliable, environmentally responsible, and enhances the passengers’ experience. That is why we have launched the transportation 2030 strategy, setting the path forward for Canada’s transportation system. Within this strategy, we are committed to investing in innovative and green transportation that will allow Canadians to move freely and efficiently.

Currently, our government is considering options to enhance and modernize national passenger rail services to better meet the transportation needs of Canadians. In budget 2016, we allocated $45 million to various VIA Rail projects, including $7.7 million to support technical studies on the renewal of its fleet and for safety upgrades, as well as $3.3 million over three years to support an in-depth assessment of VIA Rail’s high-frequency rail proposal.

After considering the results of this assessment, we have decided to undertake the additional foundational work required to advance any project of this scale with $8 million of funding announced in budget 2018. Furthermore, we were pleased to announce, this Monday, funding for VIA Rail’s fleet renewal. VIA will launch its procurement process in the spring of 2018 to replace VIA’s coaches and locomotives in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. New trains will improve reliability, enhance accessibility for passengers with disabilities, and reduce smog and cancer-causing emissions.

We are proud of investing in passenger rail to make travel more accessible and efficient for all Canadians. It will support economic growth and job creation, and promote a sustainable environment for generations to come.

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, I am very grateful to the hon. parliamentary secretary for such a positive response. Let me mention one of the other big concerns that is structural. This will take real leadership.

Since the creation of VIA Rail in the 1970s, the tracks that were created for both passenger and freight were consigned to freight and then over time, by 1994, CN became a privatized corporation and the tracks whether CN, CP, or other private companies were leased back to VIA Rail. This impedes VIA’s ability to provide on-time performance because their trains are always sidelined for freight.

I am very concerned about these twin threats. We have grain piling up in the Prairies that cannot get to Vancouver and we have passengers sitting on the sidelines hoping a freight train might pass. Ultimately we need to have a national rail service that serves passengers and freight. I know it is a tall order, but I am hoping the parliamentary secretary can do it.

Karen McCrimmon

Mr. Speaker, I would like to reassure my hon. colleague that the government does recognize the importance of intercity passenger rail service and we will continue to support it.

The Minister of Transport is responsible for making sure that the mobility needs of Canadians are met. Access to a safe, reliable, and efficient transportation network promotes economic growth and strengthens our middle class. Likewise, a mobile Canada means a more prosperous nation. That is why in our strategic plan, transportation 2030, we have given the traveller such a high priority. Notably, our strategy is aimed at providing more options and better service for travellers while securing the long-term financial viability of passenger rail.

We are heading in the right direction, but there is more work to be done.