|November 6, 2006
Canadians can’t ignore the crisis at VIA
|By Buzz Hargrove
Canada’s historic Grand Trunk Railroad officially opened its Montreal-Toronto rail line 150 years ago this week. While the Grand
Trunk exists today only in history books, the rail line is still running as part of Canada’s VIA Rail network, and is one of the busiest in
Public passenger rail has served Canadians well for many years. It has played, and continues to play, a major role in building our
national economy and bringing millions of Canadians together from coast to coast to coast.
However, the current lack of federal government funding is creating a crisis for this important national institution. Without sufficient
money to help upgrade and improve passenger rail service, repair and expand existing infrastructure and adopt advanced
technologies, VIA Rail can expect to face one of the biggest challenges in its history.
VIA Rail is our country’s primary passenger rail service and is responsible for moving more than 4 million Canadians each and every
year through transcontinental, intercity and remote lines from coast to coast. Yet years of patchwork investments have just managed
to keep VIA afloat. The absence of substantial development money has led this treasured crown corporation down a dangerous path.
VIA has witnessed a rapid deterioration of its ageing trains, tracks and other capital assets - to the tune of about $60 million per year.
Additionally, government funding has been frozen at 1999 levels and has not been adjusted to meet the year-to-year cost increases
that VIA has incurred.
This funding shortfall has left VIA in a financial deficit. To cover these costs, VIA has been forced to use cash drawn down from a
reserve fund that has generally been used to cover capital expenditures. This measure is only a short-term response that does not
address the much larger problem of under-funding. VIA expects these emergency funds to be exhausted by the end of this year.
This situation sends a clear signal that a storm is brewing at VIA Rail. If nothing is done within the next year there will be a full blown
funding crisis, despite the fact that revenues are at an all-time high, ridership has reached record levels, productivity is strong and
cost recovery has increased by over 100 per cent in the last 15 years.
As the only shareholder in VIA Rail, the government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that the corporation is financially healthy
and economically viable. Over the past year, however, the future of VIA Rail has been left off the political radar screen completely.
This crisis threatens the future of quality national passenger rail service in our country, with much at stake for Canadians.
Consider the importance of passenger rail service to Canada:
- In 2005 VIA moved passengers across 450 cities and towns in Canada, from the major metropolitan hubs of the South to the
remote (and sometimes road-less) rural communities of the North;
- Since 1996, VIA has achieved a 15 per cent growth in ridership, servicing nearly 4.1 million Canadians today;
- Passenger rail is recognized internationally as an important component of an environmentally sustainable transportation
VIA Rail employs nearly 3,000 shopcraft, on-board and off-board workers throughout the country.
- Despite funding shortfalls VIA still accounts for 92 per cent of all intercity passenger rail travel in Canada.
VIA needs dedicated funding for capital investment and has called on the federal government to provide an immediate injection of
$800 million back into its operations.
This money will provide upgraded and improved passenger service, with technologically sophisticated Canadian built locomotives
that are faster and more reliable, additional routes that will help increase overall track capacity, an improvement to existing train
frequencies as well as upgrades to the existing infrastructure, which includes stations and communications systems among other
Our government cannot afford to ignore this crisis. Ignoring it will inevitably result in major job losses for VIA workers - and also the
loss of a strong national transportation system and an important public institution for Canada. It threatens VIA Rail’s very future and
will have a negative effect on millions of Canadians.
Sufficient funding by the federal government will help ensure VIA’s status as Canada’s leading passenger rail service now, and for
many years to come. This will not only mean more passengers but also secure jobs for the thousands of Canadians who provide
this important service to the public, each and every day.
VIA is a service that continues to play a role linking our country from community to community, city to city and coast to coast as it has
done for the past 150 years. It deserves our full support.
Buzz Hargrove is president of the Canadian Autoworkers, Canada's largest private sector union
Click here to read the letter CAW president Buzz Hargrove sent Federal Minister of Transport Lawrence Cannon concerning the
funding crisis at VIA Rail [PDF]
The CAW will be mounting a major campaign concerning the future of VIA Rail Canada, renting billboards in major cities across
Canada. The union will also distribute postcards to its railway membership to mail to their Members of Parliament. More on this
CAW Resolution concerning proper funding for VIA Rail [PDF]