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High Speed Fail Illustration by Caitlyn Murphy.

High Speed Fail

Train travel can be a romantic affair, but not the way that Via Rail does it.

On a bright late December morning last winter in Stratford, Ontario, I sat in a friend’s living room and refreshed my email. I was about to head home to Montreal, a nine-hour train journey that included a stopover in Toronto. In theory, such a trip should be simple, even idyllic—I’d always loved taking the train, and planned to spend the ride sleeping, reading and staring at the winter landscape outside: the snow-covered fields, ice-laden trees and frozen lakes. Unfortunately, trips with Via Rail, the Crown corporation that controls Canada’s intercity passenger trains, don’t always turn out as peaceful as I imagine them to be. I refreshed my email again, expecting a notification that my train had been cancelled or delayed. No such email came. All was apparently well; but given the company’s track record, I felt skeptical.

A few days earlier, just before Christmas, a snowstorm had swept across much of Canada. The storm impacted the corridor between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City, Quebec, the densest region of Canada. The corridor spans a little over 1,100 kilometres and includes major cities like London, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal. It’s all connected by Via Rail (also known simply as Via), with the intention of making travel within the area easy and accessible.

As the storm worsened, trains full of people travelling home for the holidays ground to a halt. The cars remained on the tracks, unmoving, with some passengers experiencing whopping eighteen-hour delays. Food and water ran out, and staff couldn’t tell the hundreds of stuck passengers how long they’d be there. Some got so desperate they simply left the trains, jumping into the snow between stations and finding other ways home.

Via explained they’d had to immobilize or cancel trains in the corridor due to “extreme weather conditions.” Trees had fallen across the tracks, and even on the trains. The Canadian National Railway Company (CN), a private company that owns the tracks Via operates on, was slow to send maintenance help. Freight trains, which share tracks with Via’s passenger trains, also became a problem: in one case, a freight train was derailed, causing a slew of cancellations. In a country famous for its brutal winters, it felt ridiculous not to have rail infastructure that could withstand them—or, at the very least, that had emergency protocols in place.

By the time I was set to travel home on December 27, the storm had stopped and things had calmed. My friends and family reassured me that everything should be smooth sailing. For a while, it seemed they were right. The first leg of my trip, from Stratford to Toronto, went just fine. I had an hour-and-a-half-long layover in Union Station, most of which I spent scrolling on my phone and eating a Tim Hortons bagel in the busy food court. Union is always hectic, but that day it felt especially chaotic and anxiety-inducing: almost every table was full of people travelling after the holidays, impatiently checking their train schedules. The air was heavy with frustration and a desire to get home.

After my layover time elapsed, I made my way to Via’s dim, windowless boarding area and joined the long line of passengers waiting to board. The room was literally overflowing with people waiting for their respective trains, huddled crowds pouring into the adjoining hall. The space was hot from the sheer volume of people gathered there. Everyone stood with their winter coats clutched in their arms and their bags at their feet. I felt a flash of pity for the people whose trains had been cancelled or delayed. Luckily, I thought, mine was still on schedule.

We were told boarding would commence in ten minutes; ten minutes later, we were told the same thing. I checked my phone—my train was apparently still on time. But it kept happening, the words “in ten minutes” repeated over and over like some kind of mantra. An hour went by, then two. We were finally informed via email that there had been a medical emergency onboard a train. In all, we stood there for almost three hours before boarding. Once aboard, there were further delays; instead of getting to Montreal Central Station at 8:20 PM on December 27, I arrived a little after 1 AM the next day, forced to pay for an Uber home because the metro had stopped running. We were given free banana-flavoured granola bars for the inconvenience. According to Via's terms and conditions we could receive travel credits equal to 50 percent of our ticket cost, but we were never told this explicitly, so unless passengers were already in the loop it was just the granola bar.

While these holiday delays were particularly bad, they weren’t surprising. Anyone who’s travelled by train within the Quebec City–Windsor corridor knows that Canada has a serious railway problem. What happened that December was an extreme example of the brand Via has unintentionally cultivated over the years: slow, unreliable and unpredictable. The scrutiny on our national rail service after the fallout from the holiday delays invigorated age-old conversations about how our passenger train service can be improved; but the solutions currently on the horizon don’t give me much hope.

Like many other Canadians, Via has caused me to have a complicated relationship with train travel. When I was a kid in Ontario, my mom and I would stand at our local Via station once a year, waiting for my grandfather to arrive from Montreal. I would watch the massive grey-and-yellow train cars pull in with awe; but when I asked my grandfather how his trip was, he invariably scoffed. He complained that it was slow, that there was a lengthy layover at Toronto’s maze-like Union Station. Still, I revelled in the idea of travelling by train when I was older. There was something appealing—almost romantic—about it; sitting for hours with a book, watching the scenery slowly roll past you. I imagined I might feel like Anne of Green Gables voyaging to Avonlea, or like the kids from The Polar Express visiting Santa. Train travel seemed exciting and special, filled with unending possibilities.

In less whimsical terms, the train has many real benefits.  Train travel is more environmentally friendly than any other method of travel, especially as trains become increasingly run on electricity. This benefit has become especially appealing in recent years, as there’s been growing awareness of the massive carbon footprint of flying. According to Via, a train from Montreal to Toronto produces under a third of the emissions a plane would on the same trip, and around half the emissions compared to the same journey by car. Trains can be relatively cost-effective, and can also be quicker than driving, able to travel at higher speeds and avoid delays caused by traffic.

Despite these benefits, in recent years it’s been hard to keep up the same enthusiasm for trains that I had as a kid. I now live in Montreal, and often make the same journey my grandfather did, to visit friends and family. The more I make this trip, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the unending problems with our country’s railways. Worldwide, train travel has changed significantly over the last twenty years, becoming faster and more efficient; in Canada, I have the same complaints my grandfather did two decades ago.

Even as more of my friends have opted to sidestep Via’s unreliability by flying, I’ve stubbornly insisted on taking the train. This is partially because of the environmental benefits, but mostly because of how much I like train travel in theory. Part of me still holds onto the peaceful, scenic and beautiful ideal for trains I once had. In practice, however, it’s been more inconvenient than magical: I’ve cancelled dinner plans when realizing my 5 PM arrival time in Toronto would be pushed to 8 PM; I’ve sat in hot, unmoving train cars in the middle of nowhere and accepted water bottles or meagre travel credits as consolation prizes; I’ve downloaded movies ahead of long trips, aware that Via’s promised wi-fi can barely load an email, let alone Netflix.

Despite how poorly it runs, another word often in the mix when describing our country’s trains is “expensive.” On a good day, a one-way ticket from Quebec City to Toronto might cost around $120 and take ten hours. On a bad day—say, if economy seats are gone or you just get unlucky—it might cost upward of $300, require a lengthy transfer in Montreal and include delays. Travelling similar distances by train in European countries costs just a fraction of this. It can be less expensive and around six times faster to opt for a plane ticket, which start at around $130 for that same Quebec City–Toronto trip.

Though I’ve ridden on trains delayed by everything from engine failure to signal issues, the most common cause is freight trains. CN does not give passenger trains priority over freight trains, meaning Via is fully beholden to their whims, operating its schedule around theirs and often halting passenger trains to accommodate. Up to a third of Via’s trains were late between 2017 and 2020, mainly due to traffic caused by CN and the other rail companies who share the tracks. When freight trains make up 80 percent of Canada’s rail traffic, it’s hard to operate passenger trains around them.

A solution to this problem has been in the works for the better part of a decade. On paper, it’s simple: if Via is slow because it doesn’t run on its own tracks, we should build Via its own tracks. Unfortunately, development has been as expensive, slow and unpredictable as Via’s trains themselves; and once the solution is built, it still won’t raise Canada’s passenger trains to the standard enjoyed in many other countries. Canadians deserve a fast, functional passenger railway, but our government has never been willing to invest enough in railway infrastructure to make that dream a reality.

To understand why Via is as bad as it is—and how we can fix it—we need to go back to how we got here in the first place. Via Rail was established as Canada’s national passenger rail company in 1977, as an enterprise similar to the United States’ Amtrak, a federally supported corporation that runs the country’s intercity trains. Via is a Crown corporation, meaning it’s owned by the Canadian government, but it’s also a for-profit enterprise that enjoys autonomy over its operations, relying on a mix of government funding and ticket costs. Part business and part government entity, Crown corporations exist in a weird space between the private and public sector. They’re created to advance specific policy objectives and to fill public needs that the government believes aren’t economically feasible for private corporations to undertake.

In the mid-seventies, Canada’s passenger rail system was dire. As plane and car travel began to compete, trains weren’t set up to win; the existing trains were slow, outdated and expensive. Companies like CN and Canadian Pacific (CP), which operated both freight and passenger trains, were competing in an already-rocky market. The government believed it could operate a more cohesive, cost-effective passenger train system by streamlining everything into a single corporation. Via slowly took over passenger services from CN and CP, eventually assuming control of basically everything. With the exception of commuter trains like Ontario’s GO transit system and small local lines, Via is now responsible for Canada’s passenger trains.

In the first few decades after its inception, the progress Via made seemed immense. By 1980, it had introduced state-of-the-art passenger trains between Montreal and Toronto, and six years later it debuted luxury trips through the Rockies. In 1990 it won a Global Award at the World Travel Market in England for excellence in travel and tourism. It was voted one of the best rail experiences in the world in 1999, which is difficult to imagine now. One thing was holding Via back, though: the shared tracks.

CN was initially a Crown corporation, but it was privatized in 1995, falling out of government control. In retrospect, it seems strange that the government didn’t foresee owning the trains, but not the tracks, as a problem: wouldn’t you want control over the infrastructure the trains depend on? Take, for instance, Network Rail, which runs through England, Scotland and Wales and is largely funded by the UK government, much like a Crown corporation. Rather than running trains, Network Rail controls the infrastructure that both freight trains and passenger trains run on, earning some of its money by charging operators to use the tracks. Via is completely the other way around: in addition to running at the whims of CN, it also has to pay for the use of the tracks.

Not building or acquiring passenger-specific tracks for Via seemed like an easy way to cut costs in the seventies, but it has been detrimental since. Cost-cutting was a staple of Via for years; while Canada spent the eighties and nineties touting its “first-class” passenger rail system, it consistently failed to properly fund it, repeatedly slashing Via’s budget and cutting operations in half in 1990.

The problems created by the shared tracks have been acknowledged by Via and the government since at least the eighties. More than a dozen detailed studies were conducted between 1984 and 2010 to look at the problem of slow, inconsistent train service, with most offering the same solution: build Via its own rail lines between Quebec City and Windsor, allowing for more frequent trains and faster, more reliable travel. In 2011, a splashy new study looked specifically at the possibility of high-speed rail (HSR), a separate set of technologically updated tracks that would enable trains in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor to run at speeds of 300 kilometres per hour using electric traction. The findings were consistent with what we’d heard for decades: it was possible, but expensive, costing an estimated $21 billion.

By the time the 2011 study was published, Canada had already fallen behind in the realm of train travel. Japan, Italy, France and Germany had all offered high-speed train travel for upward of two decades, with Japan’s bullet train, which can reach speeds of 320 kilometres per hour, running since 1964. At the start of the twenty-first century, China also joined the HSR craze, quickly building nearly 40,000 kilometres of new railways to connect its major cities. Today, there are HSR systems in over twenty countries. The majority are in Europe and Asia, though some African nations, like Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria, have also joined in. All the while, North America has lagged behind. Though the United States has a few HSR projects like the East Coast’s Amtrak Acela, the country has largely focused its resources on highways rather than railways. Canada is the only G7 country without a HSR system, despite being the largest geographically. We do, however, have the 401, North America’s busiest highway, an eighteen-lane monstrosity that passes through Toronto.

When it comes to HSR, cost is a real concern. In 2016, a study commissioned by the Liberals found that HSR would cost an estimated $75 billion—significantly higher than the $21 billion estimated in 2011, because of the extensive tunnelling requirements. These railways are expensive to build because of the specialized technology their tracks require, and the higher building costs can also mean higher fares. Since high-speed trains can’t pass over roads, costly underpasses have to be built to accommodate them. The difference the technology makes is massive, though: the trains can reach speeds of 300 kilometres per hour or more. For context, the maximum speed of a Via train is 160 kilometres per hour. In Europe and Asia, research has found that train travel is now a competitive alternative to plane travel thanks to these higher speeds.

That HSR never got off the ground in Canada is consistent with how we’ve treated train travel since the seventies: the government identifies a way to improve it, avoids spending the required money and pays the price decades later, all while citizens bear the brunt of poor or nonexistent service. By 2016, the dream of HSR in Canada was already dead. Via quietly reshaped the idea, coming up with their own proposal for something easier and, in theory, cheaper. They packaged this new project with such odd wording that the average Canadian wouldn’t notice a difference: High Frequency Rail.

If you’re wondering about the difference between high-speed and high frequency, you’re not alone. The term, when referring to railways, was invented by Via. It doesn’t exist outside of Canada, and it doesn’t mean very much. The only real similarity to HSR is that they both involve trains. Via first formally proposed the idea for a High Frequency Railway (HFR) between Quebec City and Toronto to the federal government in 2016. Initially, it sounded great: Via promised the new rail system “would offer a faster, more frequent, accessible, and sustainable rail service” in the corridor.

Essentially, the proposal was for a separate set of tracks exclusively for Via trains. After decades of being pushed around by the whims of Canada’s freight trains, Via would finally be able to run on its own schedule and at its own speed. The speed wouldn’t actually be much faster than what we currently have, though; the HFR trains wouldn’t exceed 200 kilometres per hour. It would still take around four hours to get from Montreal to Toronto, which is only about an hour quicker than it currently takes, already only fractionally quicker than driving. Still, it would be a step up: the separate tracks would mean less delays and a more frequent schedule, and in 2016, Via claimed they could increase annual passenger load from its at-the-time 2.1 million to 6.8 million within fifteen years.

In 2021, five years after the HFR was first proposed, plans for the railway were finally confirmed. Omar Alghabra, Canada’s then-transport minister, estimated the project would cost between $6 and $12 billion. No project dates were set in stone, much less a launch date. Concrete plans for construction weren’t laid out. The public waited. When Alghabra returned with a new update in Montreal this summer, hopes were high that there would be movement on the project. Unfortunately—and again, perhaps predictably—he announced the project was moving forward slower than anticipated. “The forecast is that I’d love to see the service in operation in mid-2030s,” he said, adding that construction would likely begin “a few years from now.” This time, he declined to guess how much the HFR might cost.

Conversations about the HFR
have raised bigger, more  existential questions about Via’s role in the country. 
As it stands, something about Via fundamentally isn’t working. The company is constantly bleeding money, even in the regions where it should be most profitable. The Quebec City–Windsor corridor accounted for 81 percent of Via’s passenger revenue in 2022. Despite this, Via lost $170 million in the area that year, representing 48 percent of its overall operating loss of $354 million. This isn’t a new problem either: Via operated at a deficit even before the pandemic. There seems to be no clear consensus on what, if anything, would make Via profitable. Via hopes the faster, less ­delayed and more frequent HFR trains will promote higher ridership; some critics believe Canada should quit while it’s ahead, either selling Via as a private company or shuttering it altogether.

The problem is that, at this point, Canada is trying to claw its way out of a hole it dug for itself decades ago, when it allowed Via to run on CN tracks. In its 2016–2020 plan, Via admitted that its “lack of competitiveness is caused by its very low frequencies, ever increasing trip times and deteriorating [on-time performance].” If Canada had invested more in faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger rail to begin with, we might not be here at all; if train travel was able to compete with flying and driving, more people may opt for it, and operating losses could be much smaller.

It seems there’s only one real solution to the issue of Canada’s terrible rail system: lots and lots of money. Instead of approaching Via as an enterprise whose worth and right to exist is tied up in how profitable it is or could be, it might be worth looking at it instead as a public service that improves the lives of Canadians, regardless of the money it makes or loses. After decades of undervaluing and underfunding our trains, the government needs to finally make a reliable, faster version of Via; not just because more people using it could mean lower operating losses, but because better transportation infrastructure is what Canadians deserve. This means that, rather than spending billions on tracks that are already out of date, Canada should build a rail system that’s high-speed—not just high frequency.

This seems like a pipe dream, though. The most likely outcome is that Canada will continue to drag its feet until eventually, at some point down the line, we have the HFR. At the very least, some movement on the HFR does appear to be happening. Three consortiums have been chosen to submit their construction proposals to the federal government, and the winning bid should be locked in by mid-2024. Two of these consortiums include foreign, state-owned train operators, which might be another sign Canada doesn’t want to invest in trains itself.

Last week, I booked a $200 Via ticket from Montreal
to Toronto to see my family at Thanksgiving. From Toronto, I took a GO train for the last hour-long leg to Hamilton. If I’d taken Via the whole way home, it somehow would have cost $200 more and required an hour's layover at Union, like the ones my grandfather experienced on his journeys decades ago. When I bought my ticket, I joked with my mom that she should prepare to pick me up at least two hours later than my expected arrival time. We both laughed, though we recognized that this was a real possibility. Ultimately, I was only delayed by half an hour—for Via, that’s practically on time.

It’s hard to weigh how pleasant trains can be against how unpleasant the rail system in Canada often feels. There’s something nice about planning to spend the day on a train: about packing a bag with books, crossword puzzles and snacks. It’s nice to look out the window at the rural scenery, to take time to yourself and avoid the chaos of airports. It’s nice to choose a relatively environmentally friendly travel option. Still, it’s hard to enjoy these nice things when they’re attached to high price tags and unreliable service.

A 1986 annual report from Via argued that investing in passenger rail would be uncomfortable and expensive, but would have a decades-long positive impact on the lives of Canadians. “To modernize, VIA not only must compete for scarce dollars from an already over-extended federal treasury but also accomplish a change in thinking—giving up comfortable ways of doing things for less certain, risk-taking methods; being able to see the long-term advantages that can arise from short-term dislocation.” It’s hard to believe that, thirty-seven years later, the exact same argument could be made. ⁂

Gabrielle Drolet is a journalist based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Walrus, Vice and more. She is a cartoonist for the Globe and Mail and the New Yorker.