The quiet cuts

The Canadian Press rounds up Conservative MPs who have been dealing with concerns about budget cuts.

Across Canada, other MPs have been dealing with staffing and service reductions at Via Rail stations. Some stations now go unstaffed, raising complaints from disabled passengers who say they can’t get on the train without assistance. The budget announced $41.2 million in cuts to Via over three years.

Sarnia-Lambton MP Patricia Davidson took the issue up with Steven Fletcher, the minister of state for transport, two weeks ago. ”We’re trying to see if we cannot get this changed around,” Davidson told the Sarnia Observer. “All the VIA changes are pretty upsetting to the community and to all of us.”

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The quiet cuts

  1. One might have thought that Steven Fletcher, of all people, might have asked Via Rail how they intended to ensure adequate services would be available for the disabled even while costs were being reduced.

  2. More than 120 people turned out to a public meeting in
    Sarnia in response to these cuts, which disproves the theory that there is no demand
    for a decent public service in Sarnia. The overwhelming opinion in the room was
    that a bus could not provide a solution to their transport needs. In case, the
    bus will be a Dodge Sprinter minibus, offering a tiny number of cramped seats
    at a high price, will take longer than a train, and will be subject to weather
    and traffic delays.

    VIA’s president didn’t tell Pat Davidson, or the local mayors
    or officials working on this issue. He announced the bus substitution deal at
    the Board of trade in Toronto, just to show how deeply the current management
    cares about their local passengers. It is perhaps telling that so many current
    VIA board members are former Bell executives.

    “Intermodality” is the buzzword at VIA these days. It makes perfect
    sense to improve interchange between GO, AMT, VIA, and local buses. It does not
    make sense to eliminate a main line service and offer an entire city a tiny
    minibus in its place, or to divert public funds to support a privatised
    competitor.

    VIA management uses a misleading metric – revenue per seat
    mile – to measure performance. Using this metric, a parked, empty train is
    better than a moving one with thirty or more paying passengers, and a slow
    train is just as good as a fast one. The correct metric would be revenue per seat
    hour, recognising that an idle train represents millions of dollars of idle capital.
    Capital that belongs to the public that they’re entrusted with to provide a
    public service.

    VIA could attract more passengers on this route by providing
    guaranteed connections to the Windsor-Toronto train in London. At the moment,
    both trains stop in London at the same time, but VIA does not offer a through
    ticket, causing great frustration to potential passengers. There are also many
    people who travel to London to work. They’ve actually been told that “commuters”
    are not welcome as passengers by VIA management, rather than embraced as a
    steady source of revenue.

    Another major issue that the current management has failed
    to address, despite being given a billion dollars to spend on capital
    improvements, is fleet renewal. Unlike Amtrak, VIA has no fleet plan. Of course
    an aging locomotive pulling just two or three 60-year-old coaches is going to
    guzzle diesel, require too many crew, need frequent maintenance, and generally be
    inefficient to operate. This lesson was learned about twenty years ago in the
    UK, which is why the northernmost tip of Scotland still has four trains a day
    while the city of Sarnia gets stuck with a minibus. Maybe some of the remaining
    capital budget should be used to lease or purchase modern, efficient DMUs, like
    those on order for the Toronto Air-Rail Link?

    The first step that the government should take to stop more public
    money pouring down the drain is to replace the current board with people who actually
    have experience in passenger transport or railroads, and appoint at least one
    director to serve as a dedicated passenger advocate.

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