Trying to get back on track

 

A Thunder Bay MP is renewing his fight for a national passenger rail service.

Independent MP Bruce Hyer on Friday released a report he commissioned on Canadian passenger rail, and while he admits there’s a lot of work to do before Thunder Bay residents can easily hop on a train again, Hyer pledged he won’t be giving up.

“(Passenger rail) is the safest form of inter-city transportation,” Hyer said at the former rail station at Prince Arthur’s Landing on Friday. “It’s the most energy-efficient of any land form of transportation. It has the lowest environmental impact of any kind of land transportation, or any kind of transportation, for that matter.

“It’s comfortable,” he added. “It’s accessible for people with special needs, it’s accessible for seniors.

“And for every $1 million invested in rail in Europe and Japan and other places, they have found at bare minimum . . . there’s been at least $3 million in immediate economic benefits.”

Hyer said the reason Canada is falling behind in passenger rail when compared to other countries begins with the fact that there’s no federal rail strategy.

“We’ve never had one, we need one,” he said. “It’s time to get a vision, it’s time to get a plan.”

Second, there is no dependable, sustainable funding for Via Rail. Rather, Via funds are handed out in an ad hoc manner, and the amount of money granted to Via is falling.

“When we invest in highways, when we invest in schools, when we invest in bridges, when we invest in airports, we don’t call them subsidies,” Hyer said. “For some reason, the government loves to talk about rail infrastructure funding or operating funds as a subsidy.”

Also, Hyer said, “the board of directors of Via Rail is not committed, at all, to a national rail network. They’re interested only in the Quebec-Toronto-Windsor corridor, and that’s where they put their priorities, and it’s because it makes money.

“The Via Rail board of directors is out to kill Via Rail across Canada, and they’re only interested in southern Ontario and Quebec.”

In addition, CP and CN resist allowing passenger rail on their tracks, Hyer said.

“They overcharge, they force the passenger trains onto sidings, because they are interested in moving freight,” he said. “They see passenger rail as a hindrance.

“Well, we created those two rail companies. They are creatures and creations of the Canadian people and the Canadian government.”

Finally, federal politicians would need to cooperate on the passenger rail issue, and create legislation to support it.

“In the U.S., and in Europe and Japan, they have legislation which enables (and) protects their rail systems,” Hyer said. “In the U.S., Amtrack is protected by an Amtrack train act, and the Obama administration has been doing a great job of using that act to invest, to build connectivity, but also to force the freight companies to cooperate, including CN.

“Here in Canada, we have no act, we have no protection for Via Rail from CN and CP.”

Hyer is hoping his report — which he completed alongside Greg Gormick of Transport Action — will spur some sort of shift in attitude about passenger rail in Ottawa.

“This report does a great job of reviewing the history of Via Rail, how did we get where we are, what’s good, what’s bad, what needs fixing,” Hyer said. “One of the things that I hope happens here is either the Senate — which sometimes does some good committee work — and the House of Commons transportation committees look at Via Rail, look at passenger rail, and use this report, and past reports . . . as a start in terms of deciding now.

“If we’re going to do away with Via Rail, let’s not make it death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “Let’s be honest with the Canadian public. But if we’re committed to a national rail program, then let’s do it in a much better way.”

The entire 90-page report can be viewed at brucehyer.ca.

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