By Dan Rankin
One year from now, if the Trudeau government accepts Transport Action Canada’s new “VIA 1-4-10 Plan,” the voting public will be able to see that some positive changes have begun to take place; four years from now, the government could have some clear accomplishments under their belts as they face the electorate once again, and, 10 years from now, the myriad changes, upgrades and service improvements needed to make VIA the viable national public transportation option it needs to be would be complete. These are the three phases of the recently-completed “VIA 1-4-10 Plan” produced by Save VIA campaign coordinator Greg Gormick, and presented outside the St. Marys train station last Friday. Included in the comprehensive national plan would be an increase from two trains a day in each direction through St. Marys to six.
“The most important thing for me is, on election night our new Prime Minister said, ‘in Canada, better is always possible’,” Gormick said. “This is a better way to run VIA.”
Gormick said his plan, which revolves around spreading high-performance rail (HPR) across the country, with higher-frequency service and a modern rail fleet, is based on “having vision, but being realistic too.”
He called plans by the province to focus on high-speed rail (HSR) a “dream for the distant future.”
“What people want is some improvement soon — not five, 10, 15 years away,” he said. “That’s what we’re talking about with high-speed rail.”
He added that plans for HSR lines to link London and Windsor would bypass St. Marys and Stratford. “Here, where we’re standing now, HSR would have a negative impact because it would wipe out this service,” he said.
Some aspects of the plan Gormick crafted include: a capital budget of $5 billion over a ten-year period that would “reduce costs, improve service and increase revenue incrementally”; overhauling the way VIA does business with its freight railway hosts, as the fees VIA pays for operation on their tracks are “much higher than those paid by Amtrak in the U.S.”; and modernizing VIA’s fleet with bi-level trains.
The report calls on VIA to increase service frequency to improve relevancy and utility for passengers. “With a combination of better scheduling, improved operating practices, some tweaking of the current fleet and a realistic, performance-based relationship with the freight railways, VIA can operate more trains daily on its corridor routes,” reads the report. “Frequency and reliability are the keys to VIA’s growth.”
Re-opening and developing service along routes such as Montreal-Sherbrook, Toronto-North Bay and Winnipeg-Regina would enlarge VIA’s service territory. A closer working partnership with Amtrak is also suggested to improve two-way tourism to Canadian destinations such as Vancouver, Montreal and Niagara Falls, as well as American cities including Chicago and Boston. Currently, only one train, the Toronto-New York City “Maple Leaf” uses international cooperation between VIA and Amtrak.
“Canada’s tourism industry requires the kind of assistance that VIA’s unique services can provide,” reads the report. “Tourism is a top Canadian employer, supporting more than one million jobs and generating $84 billion in economic activity annually.”
The report also points out that, compared to Amtrak, VIA’s train and route marketing is seriously lacking. Except in the case of the Pacific-traveling “Ocean” and Atlantic-bound “Canadian,” none of VIA’s fleet have names. It also notes that “the individuality of VIA’s routes has never been established, and even its accommodations have been relabelled using the colourless jargon employed by airlines and cruise ship operators.” Meanwhile, “Amtrak and its state partners have applied names, logos and route-specific marketing campaigns to each part of the national system,” reads the report. “This has built a local identity and a pride of ownership on many routes, contributing to their growth. A similar approach aimed at creating a public excitement about rail travel must be adopted by VIA.”
Gormick listed five keys to accomplishing a major rail plan like the one he is proposing: having a plan and sticking to it, securing political will to achieve the plan, securing financial investment, making sure the experts are in control of the decision-making, and having a long-term vision so the improvements can last for decades.
The first step, the plan, is now complete. Step two, the political will part, is well underway, he said.
Gormick described receiving an email from former Hamilton mayor and newly-elected Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Liberal MP Bob Bratina Friday morning. “We had been in touch sporadically through the election campaign, and he kept telling me he wanted to do something about the rail system,” Gormick said. “He sent his greetings from Ottawa, and told me to let the people of St. Marys know that he is pro-rail.”
Gormick added that he told Bratina to give the plan, “to any of his colleagues he sees fit. He said, ‘he was circulating it right now’.”
Recently-appointed Minister of Transport Marc Garneau hasn’t been so forthcoming of his position regarding VIA, Gormick said, however he does know that Garneau “uses VIA regularly to go back and forth between his home in Montreal and Ottawa.”
“Knowing there are now people in Ottawa who will be there for four years, who have promised to bring change, what we’re really doing is saying, ‘here’s our vision of what VIA could be’,” Gormick said. “We have a new plan. I hope they like it. I hope they do it and, as always, I’ll keep you posted. We’re still fighting the battle but I think the battle is turning in our favour.”
Gormick was introduced Friday by Transport Action Ontario vice-president Tony Turritin and Southwestern Ontario Transportation Alliance board member Ken Westcar.
“We tasked Greg to come up with a realistic plan and he has, after many months of very hard labour and effort, come up with something that’s really quite brilliant,” Turritin said. “He’s talked to literally hundreds of people in the course of doing this project; experts across the country in the rail industry.”
“What Greg doesn’t know about the North American rail industry you could probably write on the back of a first-class postage stamp,” Westcar joked.
Gormick thanked St. Marys businessman and Save VIA president Chris West for his understanding that, “if we don’t have a functioning rail passenger service across the country, then there’s not going to be any rail passenger service here,” in St. Marys. West’s name can also be found on the list of Acknowledgements early in the 128-page report for his “generous assistance in the production” of the plan.
The full text of the report can be read and downloaded online at Transport-Action-Ontario.com or NationalDreamRenewed.ca.