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Canada's passenger railway is poised for sweeping reductions -- including some popular Western Canadian trains -- and so far there's little to fill the service gap that could leave travelers scrambling for reservations.

Perhaps the most well-known train being eliminated is the Canadian, which traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia, through the scenic Rocky Mountains to Banff, Alberta, and across Canada to Toronto and Montreal.

That service and almost half of VIA Rail's other routes disappeared last week. The Canadian government, which operates VIA Rail, has slashed railway subsidies as part of its effort to reduce the federal deficit.

Canada's train routes, developed in the 19th century and stretching 4,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, helped to knit together the country. The demise of many routes, including the southern transcontinental route that was traveled by the Canadian, has touched an emotional chord among many citizens and evoked protests across Canada.

With the Canadian eliminated, service on the country's southern transcontinental route -- from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary and onward to Eastern Canada -- will be limited to summertime tourist trains. (Limited transcontinental service will continue to be offered by VIA Rail on the northern route from Vancouver through Edmonton to Toronto and Montreal.)

A private, once-weekly luxury tourist train is scheduled to start on the Vancouver-Banff-Toronto route in August (with more frequent trips between Vancouver and Banff).

VIA Rail also will continue to offer its once-weekly tourist service in the summer between Vancouver and Banff on what's called the Rocky Mountaineer train.

Several other private investors are interested in running tourist trains along the Vancouver-Banff portion of the line, but to date there has been no decision on additional private trains, said VIA Rail spokesman Mike Williams.

Another route facing closure is the Esquimalt & Nanaimo line, which runs up the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. For now, however, a court ruling has prevented its shutdown.

Across Canada, the consequences of the reductions in VIA Rail funding include:

Train routes are being cut almost in half, from 38 to 20 routes.

The number of trains per week throughout the country will drop from 405 to 191; train mileage will be halved, and ridership is expected to drop from 6.8 million in 1989 to 4.1 million this year.

The VIA staff is being reduced from 7,300 to about 4,500.

Cities and communities that once had daily passenger train service, such as Kamloops, British Columbia, and Banff and Calgary in Alberta, will have only occasional tourist service.

The VIA Rail cuts havesparked criticism and protests across Canada.

Mayors of big and small towns lament that the sweeping reductions in train service will dry up tourist dollars and prevent municipalities from developing commuter rail use.

More than 100,000 Canadians have signed petitions opposing the cuts. A government commission has been created to study the future of rail service in Canada; the provinces of Ontario and Quebec are considering developing their own rail lines.

Political and labor union opponents of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Conservative Party government, which imposed the cuts, have protested in Canada's Parliament and in street demonstrations.

Virtually all of Canada's 10 provinces also have protested. The British Columbia government went further and sued the federal government to stop the planned shutdown of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo line on Vancouver Island.

The British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in late December that the line, which runs for about 100 miles north from Victoria to Courtenay, must be kept open because of an 1880s agreement with the federal government.

The federal government is expected to appeal the court ruling.

Last year, the E&N carried about 45,000 passengers, mostly tourists, along the scenic Vancouver Island route with its views of waterways, farmland and mountains.

For its part, the Canadian government says many of the far-flung routes are too cost-inefficient to operate.

VIA Rail's subsidies had burgeoned to about $510 million a year; by fiscal 1992 the federal government will reduce the subsidies to about $297 million annually. Last year, about 70 percent of VIA's operating costs were met through subsidies.

In contrast, Amtrak, the U.S. passenger railway, last fiscal year met about 28 percent of its operating cost through federal subsidies (the rest was met by revenues).

The government's new railway strategy is to concentrate on the heavily populated -- and thus more profitable -- rail corridors between Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City and other cities in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

These Eastern Canadian routes are expected to provide about three-quarters of VIA Rail's ridership. (By law, the federal government also must maintain service to some isolated northern Canadian communities that have no road access.)

However, some Canadian consumer groups contend that cuts in VIA Rail service are shortsighted; they want rail use in Canada to be encouraged through better and more frequent service since rail travel can be less polluting and more efficient than car use.

"A lot of people say VIA doesn't pay its way. That's true, but what people don't recognize is that neither does any other form of transport -- highways, marine or air travel," said Chris Holloway, director of Transport 2000, a Canadian transportation research group. "No railway in the world operates at a profit. A few routes do. But no national services."

For more information or reservations, phone VIA Rail at (800) 665-0200 or contact a travel agent.

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