’CAN we close the gap between revenue and costs any more? The answer is no.’ Addressing the Standing Committee on Transport on February 26, Via Rail Canada President & CEO Terry Ivany told Canada’s MPs that by the end of this year Via will have reduced its reliance on government funding from C$389m in 1992 to C$170m, lifting revenue by 31%. But he insisted the process could go no further without major change: ’the status quo is not an option ... we are faced with a simple choice: either we let passenger rail in Canada wither away, or take action now to let passenger rail grow in the 21st century.’

Ivany has a vision of a ’revitalised national network with faster, more frequent, more convenient services using modern equipment.’ For example, in the Québec - Montréal - Toronto - Windsor corridor ’we will provide vastly expanded services, new express trains, shorter trip times and convenient schedules.’

Ivany said there were several options to revitalise Via, including privatisation, franchising, or establishment as a commercial Crown Corporation. ’If we are to succeed, any approach requires four critical elements: greater access to rail trackage, a legislative and regulatory framework, new equipment and a long term commitment from government.’ Transport Minister David Collenette is broadly sympathetic to Ivany’s views, but questions how investment and future operations could be funded. An answer may come in the Committee’s report.

Ivany’s comments provoked a swift response from CN President & CEO Paul Tellier, who warned on March 11 that giving Via more access to CN tracks could cause businesses that depend on rail to ’lose the ability to get their products to market ... expanded passenger service might well take cars off the highway. But if it impedes rail freight service, the result would be more trucks in their place.’

But Tellier revealed just how little CN had studied the perceived threat by saying that ’to CN’s knowledge no jurisdiction in the world permits passenger trains to operate in the 100mile/h range on anything but dedicated track.’ To our knowledge, passenger trains in the 125mile/h range share tracks with freight trains in Britain, France, Sweden, Italy, Finland, Germany and even in the USA, while 100mile/h services do the same in Denmark, Poland, Morocco and a few other places. o