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<p class=VIA Rail trains frequently arrive late. (Archives)

Radio-Canada

Only 50% of VIA Rail trains arrived on time between August and September. In 2022, 57% of passengers arrived at their destination on time.

Allen Morgan and his wife Laura learned the hard way the punctuality problems of the Canadian rail carrier. One recent afternoon, they made a last-minute decision to take a train ride to Toronto with friends for dinner. In theory, the distance between London and the Queen City takes two hours to cross.

I thought it would be nice to go there, to relax, Mr Morgan said. We were like, “Oh, we'll get to Toronto at 6 p.m..”

Mr. Morgan and his wife faced a series of delays beyond VIA Rail's control. First, a worker was injured on the tracks. Then there were signal problems. As Canadian National (CN), owner of the railways, prioritizes its freight trains first, they were not able to disembark the train until 9 p.m.

VIA owns 3% of the rail lines it uses, meaning it is at the mercy of others, including CN, which owns 83%.LoadingCommon front: avalanche of hypotheses of agreements with Quebec

ELSEWHERE ON INFO: Common front: avalanche of hypotheses of agreements with Quebec

However, last week, a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) tabled a project of law which aims to force railway companies to give priority to trains carrying passengers. And to illustrate the problem, he decided to take the train between Toronto and the town of Smithers, British Columbia. He boarded the train on December 17th. He hopes to be there before Christmas.

While some, like the president of VIA, want passengers to be given priority, others say it would be a radical change and that It would be difficult to force all the companies involved to comply. In addition, the federal government is banking on the creation of a high-frequency train.

In October, Mario Péloquin, CEO of VIA, asked Ottawa to grant passenger trains priority right of passage on railway tracks, as Amtrak does in the United States.

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Mario Péloquin is the CEO of Via Rail. (Archives)

In addition, Taylor Bachrach, NDP transportation critic, introduced a bill in December with the aim of 'include this measure in law.

When CBC spoke with him on December 19, he was west of Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario, waiting for a freight train to pass. We are only on the second day [of our trip] and we have had to wait [for this reason] more than a dozen times.

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NDP MP Taylor Bachrach hopes to arrive in British Columbia by Christmas. (Archive)

Around the world, many other countries are doing a better job, he said. In reality, it's about priorities and a federal government with a vision.

The bill would correct Ottawa's mistake by privatizing CN in 1995 and selling control of the railways, according to AJ Wray, a doctoral candidate at Western University in London, Ont., who studies public transport planning.

What we should have done is imposed an obligation on them. […] It [should] have retained priority for passenger rail transport.

Mr. Wray added that the government should leverage its constitutional authority and establish a federal rail network.

VIA was created by the government federal government in 1977 after CN, then a crown corporation, separated itself from its passenger service after decades of declining revenues. Canadian Pacific passenger service was canceled the following year.

Then, decades of budget cuts at VIA led to service reductions, and ultimately, fewer passengers. In 1982, VIA carried 7.2 million people. By 1992, it was carrying only 3.6 million.

In 2019, before the pandemic led to significant service reductions, 5 million people rode VIA trains. However, only 3.3 million took the rails last year.

The organization did not record any annual profits since 2017.

The point that […] [Mr. Bachrach] raised is that Amtrak in the United States puts a lien on the right of way for passengers. […] We could look at it further to see how it works there, said Peter Fragiskatos, Liberal MP for London North Center and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and of Communities.

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Peter Fragiskatos is the Liberal MP for London North Centre.

Mr. Fragiskatos said he was seriously studying the bill, but it would be a radical change in the way things are done.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of goods cross Canada each year by rail and putting passengers first could have a significant economic impact.

I think we need to find a balance, Mr. Fragiskatos said.

The Railway Association of Canada said that any Amendment to the law must be weighed against the importance of efficient freight operations.

Ottawa is currently consulting on a multi-billion-dollar high-frequency train (HFR) project that would connect Toronto to Quebec City using dedicated tracks. This corridor represents three-quarters of VIA's ridership.

Three consortia will submit proposals, each presenting two options: one allowing speeds going up to 200 km/h, and the other can go faster during high-speed sections. The current journey between Toronto and Montreal takes five hours and the speed does not exceed 160 km/h.

A decision is expected to be made in mid-2024 , said Mr. Fragiskatos. The project is expected to be completed by the mid-2030s.

With reporting from CBC's Matthew Trevithick

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