Back on track: NDP bill aims to make train passengers a priority

There is a new push in Parliament to prioritize passengers over freight on Canada’s vast network of rail lines.

He Railway Passenger Priority Law seeks to amend the Canada Transportation Act to require railway companies to grant the right of way to passenger trains or face monetary penalties of up to $250,000 per violation.

NDP transportation critic Taylor Bachrach introduced the private member’s bill, saying the “simple change” would go a long way toward speeding up passenger rail service.

“It’s a very simple change and would make a difference in improving our passenger rail system across the country,” he said from the VIA Rail station in Smithers, BC.

To help get his message across, Bachrach took the train from Toronto to Vancouver over the Christmas holidays. He said the train had to “stop dozens of times” to let a freight train pass, and that the total trip took about a day longer than it did 50 years ago.

“If we had passenger priority, that trip would take less time and Via Rail would be able to maintain a reliable schedule that would allow more people to get on the train and know they will get to their destination with some level of safety.” predictability,” he stated.

In 2022, Only 57 percent of VIA Rail trains were judged to be on time compared to 72 percent in 2021.. The company said its on-time performance was “negatively impacted due to congestion on third-party infrastructure.”

VIA Rail only owns three percent of the 12,000 kilometers of rail lines it uses. To run trains on tracks it doesn’t own, VIA has to negotiate scheduling agreements and pay track owners, including CP, Metrolinx and CN.

“There are currently no regulations in Canada that give priority to passenger trains when they encounter a freight train, forcing VIA Rail trains to yield to trains owned by the owner of the infrastructure, resulting in delays for passengers across the country,” a VIA Rail spokesperson said. he said in a statement.

“A multitude of measures could be used to ensure the reliable and on-time service that passengers expect, including a clear priority for passenger trains.”

About 50 years ago, the American national passenger railroad company, AMTRAK, was granted the right of way now required by Via Rail. Both CP and CN operate in the United States and give priority to AMTRACK to execute their services.

“What we need now here in Canada is a legislative tool that allows us to force Canadian National to offer regular service and provide high-performance service on the roads they need to,” said AJ Wray, a doctoral candidate at Western University who focuses on public services. transportation planning.

In a statement, CN, which owns the vast majority of lines used by VIA Rail, said any such proposal must be carefully reviewed and the company advocated for separate, dedicated rail lines for passenger trains.

“Any such proposal should be carefully considered in consultation with railways of all types and shippers from a variety of industries that depend on safe and efficient rail freight service to bring their resources to market and essential products to communities across Canada.” said a CN spokesperson. he wrote in an email to CTV News.

Even with the law in the United States, AMTRACK says freight trains caused more than a million minutes of delays for passengers in 2019. AMTRACK says the law has only been enforced by the US Department of Justice once in 1979.

Still, the CEO of VIA Rail has said he wants to see something similar become a reality in Canada.

“I would love that, along with a bill of rights for passengers similar to what we see in the airline industry, although perhaps imperfect,” VIA Rail CEO Mario Peloquin said in October.

A Via Rail employee walks past the Ocean, the Halifax to Montreal passenger train, at the Halifax station on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (/Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS)But those working in the shipping and freight industries are concerned that any type of regulation that limits the movement of cargo through Canada could affect the supply chain.

“We are getting over our COVID hangover right now,” said John Corey, executive director of the Canadian Freight Management Association. “The fact that VIA has priority over the roads will change that and I don’t think that’s what we need right now.”

Instead of competing with freight lines, Corey agrees with CN and believes Canada should create a designated network of rail lines for VIA Rail.

“I think that’s the real answer,” Corey said. “You need a dedicated lane if you want to have a passenger service that is effective and efficient. The problem with that is that it will cost a lot of money.”

Canada is consulting on the creation of designated lines for a high frequency line between Quebec City and Torontobut it is not expected to be completed until at least the mid-2030s.

Two decades ago, passengers could board an express train at downtown Montreal’s Central Station and arrive at Toronto’s Union Station about four hours after departure, said Greg Gormick, who runs On Track Consulting.

Now, that same trip typically takes about five hours (assuming there are no delays impeding travel) despite roughly $300 million in federal investments along the Montreal-Toronto corridor since 2009.

Gormick believes many of VIA’s delays are due to what he calls “poor” equipment maintenance and track congestion in southwestern Ontario, where Metrolinx operates the GO Transit system.

Olivia Chow, the current mayor of Toronto, introduced a similar bill in Parliament when she was an MP. She never passed.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that this private member’s bill will move forward unless the government…steps up and acknowledges that it wants to do this,” Wray said.

Bachrach’s bill has already completed its first reading and would require the support of the federal government to be enacted. He said he intends to contact the Transport Minister and other government officials when Parliament returns at the end of January.

With files from The Canadian Press

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