Monday, March 20, 2017

Ten ways to revitalize Via Rail Canada (Part I)

With all the excitement about Via Rail Canada’s Canada 150 wraps, I thought I’d take this opportunity to open a discussion about what we would all like to see from our national passenger railway. I have always enjoyed my time on Via Rail trains. I have travelled between Ottawa, Toronto, London, Kitchener, Sarnia, Montreal and Quebec City on Via trains, dating back to the days when the trains were all blue and yellow or silver and blue and pulled by the old F units. I do not profess to be an expert on Via and I don’t want this post to come across as a criticism of the railway. If anything, it should read more like a criticism of the federal government, which has made numerous errors over the years in its treatment of this underappreciated Crown corporation.

With that in mind, here are the first five of my 10 suggestions that I’d like to see for Via Rail Canada.

1. Bring back the blue and yellow scheme

Print of a shot of Via 6523 in Heron Bay, 1982. Photo courtesy of Eric Gagnon at Trackside Treasure.

This might seem like a trivial suggestion, but I really think consistency in a railway’s look benefits the railway immensely. Look at the consistency of CN’s look over the years and compare that to the multiple changes made to Canadian Pacific’s look over the last twenty years. What are your first impressions of these companies? I would venture to guess most people would tend to think of CN as a more competent railway. Of course, our perceptions are coloured by more than just how a railway looks, but there’s something to first impressions. Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Right now, Via Rail has its renaissance green and yellow scheme, which isn’t all that bad, but when you consider the separate scheme for the railway’s streamliners, not to mention the look of the troubled renaissance coaches, you don’t see a unified look. I think back to how the blue and yellow coaches fit with the streamliners and even the original LRC coach scheme. Even when the F40PH-2s replaced the F units and assumed a new look, all the parts of the railway fit together much better than they do today.

2. Lose the Government of Canada wordmark and oversized Canada flags

Via 647 crosses McKenna Casey crossing near Barrhaven in Summer 2015

Part of my job is marketing, so I can say, as a humble communications and marketing guy, anything that is associated with the federal government, as Via Rail is, faces an uphill battle. After all, the federal government is not known as being terrible forward thinking, efficient or modern, as a general rule. As a public servant, I can confirm this. So by placing these logos on its coaches, the railway is already putting out a message to its customers that they may want to lower their expectations. I don’t pretend to know whose idea it was to apply the wordmark in the first place. I suspect it was a decision that was out of the company’s hands. But it would really help for Via to distance itself from its political masters, just like Canada Post has done. That is, if the company has a say.

The oversized Canada flags are mostly gone from the coaches, and I think this is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong. I am a proud Canadian and love the Canadian flag, but I find these flags are visually distracting. Does anyone remember when the old GO Train locomotives had a tiny Ontario flag on their hoods? I think that type of subtlety would work much better on coaches, if the idea ever comes up again.

In both cases, I find the wordmark and oversize flags to be visually distracting. In many cases, simplicity is the best approach.

3. Give the provinces and regions more say in intercity routes

Via Corridor train (a double ender with two P42s) approaches Cedarview Road recently. Note that five of the eight destinations listed on these wraps are in Ontario and Quebec.

I was inspired to write this post when I noticed some of the western destinations listed on the Via wraps on its coaches. One coach, which has Edmonton listed, made me think of the railway's sparse presence in Western Canada. Does it seem odd to anyone that Via Rail has no presence in Calgary or Banff? To me, that is criminal. I'm not a business expert, but I would have to think that there are smart economic development professionals in Western Canada that would be able to work with Via Rail to identify corridors where passenger rail could make sense, at least to a degree where it could reasonably approach cost recovery. That is why I have wondered why Via Rail's funding model doesn't seem to include a more prominent role for the provinces and regional governments. I would think it would be reasonable to give the provinces and regions a say in new routes in exchange for partial subsidies of those routes, if the will exists to support these services.

In the United States, much of Amtrak's timetable is influenced by regional priorities that drive regional routes. These services would not exist if regional and state governments hadn't identified the need to have trains connecting cities. I would never suggest Via Rail adopt a funding model like Amtrak's, which seems far more susceptible to political whims.

But surely there has to be more opportunities to have better rail service to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina or other Western Canadian cities. I realize it's a complex task, since there needs to be a clearly defined priority, will funding partners and a compliant host railway that can accommodate passenger trains. This is not always easy, but I think we could make it easier if we allow regions have a greater say in planning a truly national passenger timetable.

4. Explore higher speed rail on selected routes

Via Rail corridor train approaches Belfast Road en route to Via's central train station in April 2014

At some point, I think our country is going to have to ask itself what it wants from Via Rail Canada. Are we going to treat Via as a national resource, which will require federal support or are we going to leave it in no man's land, where it often has to fend for itself? I'm not saying that Via is entirely left to its own devices now, but I think its federal support is leaning more in that direction.

Unlike when it was founded, Via now has its own rights-of-way, or tracks that it largely controls. The Smiths Falls Subdivision is one example. It is largely a Via-controlled corridor, although it does host the odd CN local freight (CN 589). Is this line a good candidate for investments that would allow trains to go faster? What about Via's Brockville Sub?

The idea of high-speed rail is a no-brainer in many countries in Europe in Asia, where railways are viewed as a national resource. China, Japan, France and Spain are all examples of high-speed rail success. In a country where we are separated by vast distances, high speed rail would require enormous investments, but would likely yield enormous benefits. As I mentioned, we need to decide what kind of passenger railway we want for our country.

Amtrak has already established a few higher-speed rail corridors, where its trains can reach 110 mph. I find it unfortunate that the US, which has repeatedly rejected high-speed rail, is further along than we are. That needs to change.

5. Rescue the remaining RDCs and use them

An old RDC has sat in Ottawa's Walkley Yard for years

It's a shame that more of these old Budd-built RDCs weren't saved because they could be the key to establishing passenger rail on routes that might not require a full consist. These old workhorses have proven themselves to be remarkably reliable. Via still uses them in Northern Ontario and recently used them on Vancouver Island until poor track conditions forced the cancellation of their service. I would think that the railway could make use of these as a way to gauge interest in renewed rail service in parts of Canada it no longer serves.

Via Rail Canada faces a thankless task everyday. Maybe it's time we give the railway the tools it needs to do its job.

More to come.


Steve Boyko said...

These are good suggestions, Michael. As a constant skeptic, I say, "good luck!" but I do think a few of these are definite possibilities.

High-speed rail is something that has been studied several times... one might say, to death. I think there are possibilities in the Corridor but for some reason it hasn't taken hold yet, despite the so-called "dedicated" tracks that have been built.

One of the major problems with VIA Rail is the lack of dedicated, consistent funding. The previous Conservative government gave several capital injections to VIA Rail, followed by reductions in operating funding. I would like to see a consistent, guaranteed minimum operational funding with a similar minimum capital budget, to allow real long term planning by VIA.

If you want to know why there's no Calgary-Edmonton rail service, follow the money. Ask who would lose out with the introduction of passenger rail.

I think the use of RDCs is a non-starter, personally.

DaveM said...

On your point about provincial services, the Amtrak model may offer a good idea. Some services provided by Amtrak are jointly funded by the states and the federal governments. An arrangement like that should be considered to help share the costs. The Ontario Northlander would have been a good candidate for this. One of the big issues with that is that I'm not sure how much support from the people there is for provincial tax payer assistance for these routes (especially ones as well served by bus and air connections such as Calgary to Edmonton).


Anonymous said...

I am a long time rail fan, but I seldom ride Via because the cost is simply way too expensive. I live near Windsor and a few years ago, I planned a trip to Toronto for my family of 4. Planning is as far as we got. The round trip train fare alone would have been over $500, not to mention the cost of long term parking at the train station, plus taxis to our final destination in Toronto. (I was not about to lug toddlers and luggage up and down the subway stairs.) I can drive to and from Toronto on just over one tank of gas and then have my car to get wherever I need to go at my destination. Unless Via is cost competitive with private automobiles, its market will be limited to students, seniors and other non car owners. If the government truly wants us to embrace 'green' transportation, it needs to be priced in a way that takes traffic off the highways and reduces the need for highway infrastructure. The colour of the trains isn't going to impact the future of the company in any meaningful way, but adopting 'memory schedules' whereby the trains depart at consistent times from major stations would be beneficial. (ie: Toronto bound trains leaving Windsor at 6:15am, 10:15am, 2:15pm and 6:15pm or something like that.) As for Via controlling its own corridors, it only does so because the freight railroads have cast them off due to lack of traffic. Not because it wants to. As a tenant, Via pays incremental maintenance costs. As an owner, they pay the whole nut, plus property taxes. And their highest volume corridors (Toronto to Montreal and Toronto to London) remain CN properties. High speed rail? That's a pipe dream, but the politicos keep bringing it up anyhow. Stringing wires over the tracks isn't issue. In order for high speed electric trains to operate safely and efficiently, you need to shut down all the level crossings and replace them with grade separated crossings. Amtrak did this on their NE Corridor, but it took decades and they still can't operate trains at anywhere near European speeds. Replacing the hundreds of grade crossing between Windsor and Quebec City, not to mention the dozens in Toronto alone, would cost billions and take decades. It would be cheaper to lease a car for every Via Rail passenger and pay for their gas!

Eric said...

We're so used to saying 'no' to VIA that we won't say 'yes' to revitalization ideas! I agree with some of the other commenters that some of the changes are unlikely (dang, there I am saying 'no'!) but it does not hurt to hope.

Just like so many pooh-poohed the CANADA 150 scheme! And hey, who didn't like the blue & yellow scheme.

But growing up with the formation, genesis, early era and constant dismantling, pruning and outright disrememberment of VIA gives us a different, though not necessarily better perspective!

Looking forward to the rest of the ways! No pressure.

Michael said...

Thanks for your comments, Steve, Dave, Eric and our friend from Windsor (one of my favourite places in SW Ontario!). My goal was to throw out some ideas, regardless of whether they are realistic or not. Like my blue and yellow idea. I'm not saying that will ever happen, but the underlying point is to have something consistent in Via's look. The flags, government wordmark and different schemes doesn't really inspire confidence from a marketing p-o-v. That's just a professional opinion. And the RDC idea was about trying to find ways to serve smaller routes with realistically sized trains. Hence, the RDC idea. The higher speed rail idea is just that -- higher speed rail. I don't think the will or resources will be there to have bullet trains, but I think we can work with what we have to make way for higher speed trains, just as they do in the US. Giving provinces and regions more say in regional routes is, in my opinion, the change that could actually happen, if the will existed.