HAVING considered privatisation of VIA Rail Canada, the federal government may now be prepared to ensure its survival in the public sector, and, to boot, stabilise its precarious financial position. Transport Minister David Collenette has apparently convinced his cabinet colleagues of the merits of using a healthy pre-election budget surplus to put an end to the hand-to-mouth funding arrangements for the passenger operator.

VIA currently receives C$170m a year from the government, and this may be increased by as much as C$75m a year, to be provided over 10 years. There are suggestions that a one-time injection of C$400m could be made for the purchase of new rolling stock, surely a pressing need if VIA is to build market share in the Québec - Windsor corridor and replace its classic, if ageing, long-haul fleet.

Privatisation proposals included offering VIA to the private sector as three franchises, covering Québec - Windsor, Toronto - Vancouver and Montréal - Halifax. Franchising was not without its critics, who pointed to the British experience. David Glastonbury, a former president of lobby group Transport 2000 Canada, told the The Globe and Mail: ’the Brits are a dismal failure. They have so many complaints. The fares have gone up. The savings haven’t been realised. The service has been rotten.’

  • In his budget speech of February 29, Finance Minister Paul Martin said that the federal administration would work ’with other orders of government’ and, where applicable, the private sector to produce by the end of the year a plan to improve provincial and municipal infrastructure across Canada, including urban transit. The federal government was prepared to commit C$450m over the next two years and C$550m in each of the following four years, he added.