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VIA Rail

C_Johnson_1995

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Those who say “surely CN/CP can fit one or two trains per day on their busy freight lines” have a very outdated or unrealistic view of the current freight infrastructure.

The problem in a nutshell is how to overtake a slower freight train. Meeting opposing trains is relatively benign.

Even on a double-tracked line such as the Kingston Sub, there is clearly a limit to how much overtaking can happen. On single track, the limits are magnified. The amount of investment needed to solve overtaking between Vancouver and Halifax is gigantic - easily $200M or more in added sidings and double track. All of which then has an incremental operating cost. In aggregate, it’s as if we are building a new railway line 100 miles or more in length…… for only one or two passenger trains per day.

One has to appreciate also that the passenger load on a long distance passenger train is roughly in the range of a single Q400 or B737. Does it make sense to spend that money just for one planeload of capacity? Any difference in carbon and fuel expenditure is trivial in the grand scheme of things.

While I fault CN and CP for dragging their feet at lengthening sidings even sufficiently to operate long freights efficiently, I can’t fault a strategy of trying to run “the hard way” and then only investing the bare minimum to bring capacity up to the required level. That’s a very businesslike way to manage capital. CN in particular has acknowledged that it undershot its capacity, and has clearly made improvements, and is making more. Even with that course correction, the overtaking challenge will never go away. There is no business case for government to invest to achieve it.

I can justify investing in a Maritime network because a) the job creation value to the Maritimes is as good as any other infrastructure project down that way and b) on a buikd-it-and-they-will-come premise, it could be a stimulus to development and tourism and c) those freight lines have much more capacity available, and a “mixed” freight/passenger operation could be viable for several decades. The prairies are a different - only Alberta has the combination of population and moderate distance (allowing the overtaking problem to be solved economically) to make an investment possible. While Edmonton- Calgary-Banff gets all the attention as potentially running close to break even, I would argue that even that investment ought to include mixed operations to Lethbridge and Prince Albert to improve the ridership catchment area and value delivered for any subsidy.

I just stepped off #2 on Canada Day. Ridership was good, service was great, and passenger experience was consistently positive. Nobody minded the slow pace, and (compared to past trips) the assurance of on time arrival removed anxiety compared to a faster schedule that wasn’t being met. So it still works for liesure travel, although the equipment probably only has a few years of life remaining. I would love to see VIA run more times per week, but its equipment utilization is likely maxxed out, and there are still empty berths on the existing trains.

We were two hours ahead of schedule at Brechin…. but running third in a fleet of four southbound trains that encountered a fleet of three freight trains coming north. Even with double track down from Settler, we crawled to Doncaster. I can’t see an investment strategy that would prevent that kind of impediment to VIA..

So, all in all, we need to exorcise any memory of what rail transportation was in the past from our thinking and build for the future, not to recreate the past. There’s enough nostalgia to go around.

- Paul
I agree. As much as it pains to say, I believe the Canadian should be cancelled at the end of the current fleet's life. For the time being, investment should be focused in high density corridors. We have so much catching up to do and that needs to take priority.

On a related note, I am similarly unconvinced of the potential of Vancouver Island rail compared to coach busses. I was wondering what people here thought of the potential of that service.
 

Bordercollie

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Those who say “surely CN/CP can fit one or two trains per day on their busy freight lines” have a very outdated or unrealistic view of the current freight infrastructure.

The problem in a nutshell is how to overtake a slower freight train. Meeting opposing trains is relatively benign.

Even on a double-tracked line such as the Kingston Sub, there is clearly a limit to how much overtaking can happen. On single track, the limits are magnified. The amount of investment needed to solve overtaking between Vancouver and Halifax is gigantic - easily $200M or more in added sidings and double track. All of which then has an incremental operating cost. In aggregate, it’s as if we are building a new railway line 100 miles or more in length…… for only one or two passenger trains per day.

One has to appreciate also that the passenger load on a long distance passenger train is roughly in the range of a single Q400 or B737. Does it make sense to spend that money just for one planeload of capacity? Any difference in carbon and fuel expenditure is trivial in the grand scheme of things.

While I fault CN and CP for dragging their feet at lengthening sidings even sufficiently to operate long freights efficiently, I can’t fault a strategy of trying to run “the hard way” and then only investing the bare minimum to bring capacity up to the required level. That’s a very businesslike way to manage capital. CN in particular has acknowledged that it undershot its capacity, and has clearly made improvements, and is making more. Even with that course correction, the overtaking challenge will never go away. There is no business case for government to invest to achieve it.

I can justify investing in a Maritime network because a) the job creation value to the Maritimes is as good as any other infrastructure project down that way and b) on a buikd-it-and-they-will-come premise, it could be a stimulus to development and tourism and c) those freight lines have much more capacity available, and a “mixed” freight/passenger operation could be viable for several decades. The prairies are a different - only Alberta has the combination of population and moderate distance (allowing the overtaking problem to be solved economically) to make an investment possible. While Edmonton- Calgary-Banff gets all the attention as potentially running close to break even, I would argue that even that investment ought to include mixed operations to Lethbridge and Prince Albert to improve the ridership catchment area and value delivered for any subsidy.

I just stepped off #2 on Canada Day. Ridership was good, service was great, and passenger experience was consistently positive. Nobody minded the slow pace, and (compared to past trips) the assurance of on time arrival removed anxiety compared to a faster schedule that wasn’t being met. So it still works for liesure travel, although the equipment probably only has a few years of life remaining. I would love to see VIA run more times per week, but its equipment utilization is likely maxxed out, and there are still empty berths on the existing trains.

We were two hours ahead of schedule at Brechin…. but running third in a fleet of four southbound trains that encountered a fleet of three freight trains coming north. Even with double track down from Settler, we crawled to Doncaster. I can’t see an investment strategy that would prevent that kind of impediment to VIA..

So, all in all, we need to exorcise any memory of what rail transportation was in the past from our thinking and build for the future, not to recreate the past. There’s enough nostalgia to go around.

- Paul
Would better dispatching resolve some of these issues? Legislation to ensure that passenger trains run on time? Penalties for not fulfilling their requirement?
 

Bureaucromancer

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I agree. As much as it pains to say, I believe the Canadian should be cancelled at the end of the current fleet's life. For the time being, investment should be focused in high density corridors. We have so much catching up to do and that needs to take priority.

On a related note, I am similarly unconvinced of the potential of Vancouver Island rail compared to coach busses. I was wondering what people here thought of the potential of that service

One of the key points on Vancouver Island is that the Malahat is an absolute mess, with the rail line well positioned to be a true regional traffic reliever, and commuter service. North of Nanaimo is a lot harder to justify, but also not where the major costs of the line are.
 

kEiThZ

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As for services in general, for intercity rail, I would say that more intensive short-distance routes are more successful (because they can generate more habitual users) than long-distance routes. Moncton/St. John to Halifax has always been the one more proposed, and I think that this kind of service would be a good third option for intercity rail in the country, after the Corridor and E-C.

This bears out when you consider the gravity model applied to determine the rough level of demand between cities.
 

crs1026

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Would better dispatching resolve some of these issues? Legislation to ensure that passenger trains run on time? Penalties for not fulfilling their requirement?

Be careful what you ask for. Suppose Ottawa leaned on CN to do better. CN’s respone would be - “OK, we will give priority to VIA over grain trains. But the annual grain throughput will be reduced by x%” Are we happy with that? The current performance standard is all that we are willing to pay for, and all that one can reasonably ask for given the amount we pay.

On my recent ride, we stopped at Sioux Lookout alongside an eastbound container train. Both trains were ready to leave at the same time. The freight got the green light first, and we “ran on yellows” behind it until the next extra long siding, some 60 miles away, where the freight took siding and we overtook it. That slow running clearly created some unnecessary delay for VIA (hence the padded schedule). Had the passenger train been given the green ahead of the freight, we would have pulled away from the slower freight within a couple of block lengths, so it would not have run speed-restricted, and its delay would only have been a few minutes…. and there would have been less need to hold it further east. So clearly as a matter of practice, dispatching favours freight in ways that may be unproductive for VIA, but represents an “abundance of caution” to protect freight throughput. I am not sure that CN ought to be penalised for that. Those 400 containers generated much more revenue for CN than a couple hundred VIA passengers.

- Paul
 

crs1026

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One of the key points on Vancouver Island is that the Malahat is an absolute mess, with the rail line well positioned to be a true regional traffic reliever, and commuter service. North of Nanaimo is a lot harder to justify, but also not where the major costs of the line are.

Neither Ottawa nor the Province have rushed to put money in this one.

I am certain that BC’s recent governments have all been sensitive to the highway-versus-car dilemma, and the decisions made to date were politically astute. For an island of supposed green-leaning hippies, Vancouver Islanders sure love their cars.

This is a good example of where the romantic attachment to what once was may have coloured the arguments for what is needed. The old Dayliner was a delightful experience and had considerable tourism potential….. but at a huge going-forward cost.

I do suspect the line south of Nanaimo will return, eventually…. when the point of no further gain is reached on highway improvements and the road congestion reaches some pain threshold. I’m not confident that anyone would want to subsidise things further north. BC is not Ontario…..they have lots of trees, but none bearing money. They are far more careful fiscally.

- Paul
 

lenaitch

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I agree. As much as it pains to say, I believe the Canadian should be cancelled at the end of the current fleet's life. For the time being, investment should be focused in high density corridors. We have so much catching up to do and that needs to take priority.

On a related note, I am similarly unconvinced of the potential of Vancouver Island rail compared to coach busses. I was wondering what people here thought of the potential of that service.
That makes the assumption that the money would stay in the VIA pot. There would also be the political angle that western service was being sacrificed for eastern improvement. In northern Ontario, the Canadian does provide a flag stop service to isolated communities. I don't know if that would have to replaced, say, between Hornpayne and Sioux Lookout, similar to their Superior between Sudbury and White River.
 

Bureaucromancer

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Neither Ottawa nor the Province have rushed to put money in this one.

I am certain that BC’s recent governments have all been sensitive to the highway-versus-car dilemma, and the decisions made to date were politically astute. For an island of supposed green-leaning hippies, Vancouver Islanders sure love their cars.

This is a good example of where the romantic attachment to what once was may have coloured the arguments for what is needed. The old Dayliner was a delightful experience and had considerable tourism potential….. but at a huge going-forward cost.

I do suspect the line south of Nanaimo will return, eventually…. when the point of no further gain is reached on highway improvements and the road congestion reaches some pain threshold. I’m not confident that anyone would want to subsidise things further north. BC is not Ontario…..they have lots of trees, but none bearing money. They are far more careful fiscally.

- Paul
Bear in mind the initial business case was only published in May and doesn’t break out south of Nanaimo but is similar in cost to highway widening, roughly half the cost of a realignment and about a quarter of a Saanich inlet crossing.

re The Canadian

A new fleet sized for thrice weekly, or even daily, service is really nothing close to costly enough to justify the political pain withdrawal would trigger. Especially if we were to fund Edmonton - Calgary - Banff as a dedicated passenger corridor, re-equipping, re-routing and retaining even if only on todays schedules is going to offer a lot more options in future than withdrawing cross country. Frankly I think if we pull The Canadian VIA would be done, with whatever is left thrown to the provinces and leaving absolutely no prospect for improved services outside the corridor and Alberta.

I do wonder if some kind of neo-pullman type arrangement whereby Via provides a baseline coach service and Rocky Mountaineer adds cars on whatever basis works for them would be worth discussing , although my suspicion is it’s better to keep the high revenue passengers paying VIA directly.
 
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Urban Sky

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I agree. As much as it pains to say, I believe the Canadian should be cancelled at the end of the current fleet's life. For the time being, investment should be focused in high density corridors. We have so much catching up to do and that needs to take priority.
Here is a small list of functions the Canadian fulfills:
  • The Capreol-Winnipeg segment is part of VIA’s mandate of remote routes it has to serve
  • Deadhead moves between Jasper and (the nearest maintenance center in) Vancouver of the fleet used on the Skeena
  • Deadhead moves between Capreol and (the nearest maintenance center in) Toronto
  • Deadhead moves between the maintenance centers in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver
Without the Canadian, you would still need to pay for service to cover the above - and without having any qualified crews on your own, good luck with asking CN to assign you their own crews for your occasional equipment moves. So if the Canadian’s direct operating loss is only $6.5 million in 2018 (or a surplus of $800,000 the year before!), then what would be saved by killing it?

That makes the assumption that the money would stay in the VIA pot. There would also be the political angle that western service was being sacrificed for eastern improvement. In northern Ontario, the Canadian does provide a flag stop service to isolated communities. I don't know if that would have to replaced, say, between Hornpayne and Sioux Lookout, similar to their Superior between Sudbury and White River.
Such a remote service was offered between Capreol and Winnipeg between 1981 and 1990, when all transcontinental trains operated via Thunder Bay:
C9036155-AEE4-42A0-8F30-44F7841649EC.jpeg


Just to give a rough cost estimate, the service shown above caused a direct operating loss of $6.7 million in 1988, which converts to $12.6 million in 2018 prices (i.e. twice the Canadians direct operating loss of $6.7 million that year):
ADBE1188-A83E-4EEE-A69E-4C8CFABBCB6A.jpeg


On a related note, I am similarly unconvinced of the potential of Vancouver Island rail compared to coach busses. I was wondering what people here thought of the potential of that service.
I’ve visited the sorry remains of this rail service in 2015 and I also struggle to imagine anything worth the necessary expense to revive it, as I wrote back in 2020:
BC's Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has published a report which finally puts a realistic price tag at restoring the Victoria-Courtenay service:

View attachment 243424
Source: WSP (2020, p.5)

Unfortunately, the cost of just restoring the service which operated until unsafe track conditions forced its suspension is estimated at $227.3 million, which translates with a ridership figure of 45,706 in 1988 (sorry, couldn't find any more recent ridership figure, but would be surprised if it had increased since then) to a capital cost of $5,000 per rider. To compare, this is equivalent to spending $29.9 billion to get VIA's Corridor ridership from 4.1 to 9.9 million, whereas the sales pitch for HFR promises to achieve the same with only $4 billion...

Just to provide an illustrative example for why the costs of restoring the ROW have escalated so much:
View attachment 243425
Source: WSP (2020, p.21)
 

lenaitch

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I do wonder if some kind of neo-pullman type arrangement whereby Via provides a baseline coach service and Rocky Mountaineer adds cars on whatever basis works for them would be worth discussing , although my suspicion is it’s better to keep the high revenue passengers paying VIA directly.
I think only one of Rocky Mountaineer routes uses the VIA Canadian (CN) trackage, and part of one uses the Skeena trackage. RM is all daytime passage, which they no doubt pay dearly for, whereas I believe the Canadian traverses the mountains at night. RM sells end-to-end tour packages which include morning starts and evening stops and off-train overnight accommodations. I can't imagine how they could maintain that type of service with a scheduled service whose timing is impacted by events several time zones away.

If you think the 'high revenue' passengers are on VIA, check out RM's fares.
 

crs1026

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Bear in mind the initial business case was only published in May and doesn’t break out south of Nanaimo but is similar in cost to highway widening, roughly half the cost of a realignment and about a quarter of a Saanich inlet crossing.

I hadn't seen this document - thank you for posting. It's useful not only in the context of the Vancouver Island decision, but it's a very good format - it would be interesting to read it in the context of HFR, Peterboro GO, Niagara GO, or Kitchener-London GO - to consider what the story might be for those lines - and what amount of information ML and Ottawa are/aren't sharing about those.

My sense on reading is that it has deliberately not split out the commuter from north end services, on the premise that politically a decision would need to be "all island" and only doing the highway-relief portion would be seen as favouring one set of communities over others.

The price tag is still huge, I wonder how it would be see on the BC mainland - suitable or disproportionate to transit investment in those regions?

re The Canadian

A new fleet sized for thrice weekly, or even daily, service is really nothing close to costly enough to justify the political pain withdrawal would trigger. Especially if we were to fund Edmond - Calgary - Banff as a dedicated passenger corridor, re-equipping, re-routing and retaining even if only on todays schedules is going to offer a lot more options in future than withdrawing cross country. Frankly I think if we pull The Canadian VIA would be done, with whatever is left thrown to the provinces and leaving absolutely no prospect for improved services outside the corridor and Alberta.

I do wonder if some kind of neo-pullman type arrangement whereby Via provides a baseline coach service and Rocky Mountaineer adds cars on whatever basis works for them would be worth discussing , although my suspicion is it’s better to keep the high revenue passengers paying VIA directly.

The history to date of RMRT's lobbying vs VIA makes me think that there is little prospect of coproduction - but maybe dollars would solve that.

On my latest ride on #2, a significant number of riders had taken RMRT from Vancouver to Jasper/Banff, and then boarded VIA in Jasper for the rest of the trip to Toronto or beyond. They spoke highly of both - no one disparaged one after riding the other. The overnight in Kamloops was acceptable especially since RMRT does such a good job of managing luggage to and from the hotels. These are after all liesure travellers, many on once-in-lifetime trips such that overnighting in Kamloops (and in some cases then in Jasper/Banff) was very appealing.

One possibility that might induce RMRT to drop its opposition to a VIA fleet investment might be to give them the Rockies business and reequip the Canadian as a Jasper-Toronto only route. I'm not sure I like the idea, but if one reinstituted a Winnipeg-Calgary-Banff branch, I might be persuaded. Or, change the fare structure for the portion in the mountains to level the playing field for two competitors a little.

- Paul
 
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Bureaucromancer

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I hadn't seen this document - thank you for posting. It's useful not only in the context of the Vancouver Island decision, but it's a very good format - it would be interesting to read it in the context of HFR, Peterboro GO, Niagara GO, or Kitchener-London GO - to consider what the story might be for those lines - and what amount of information ML and Ottawa are/aren't sharing about those.

My sense on reading is that it has deliberately not split out the commuter from north end services, on the premise that politically a decision would need to be "all island" and only doing the highway-relief portion would be seen as favouring one set of communities over others.

The price tag is still huge, I wonder how it would be see on the BC mainland - suitable or disproportionate to transit investment in those regions?



The history to date of RMRT's lobbying vs VIA makes me think that there is little prospect of coproduction - but maybe dollars would solve that.

On my latest ride on #2, a significant number of riders had taken RMRT from Vancouver to Jasper/Banff, and then boarded VIA in Jasper for the rest of the trip to Toronto or beyond. They spoke highly of both - no one disparaged one after riding the other. The overnight in Kamloops was acceptable especially since RMRT does such a good job of managing luggage to and from the hotels. These are after all liesure travellers, many on once-in-lifetime trips such that overnighting in Kamloops (and in some cases then in Jasper/Banff) was very appealing.

One possibility that might induce RMRT to drop its opposition to a VIA fleet investment might be to give them the Rockies business and reequip the Canadian as a Jasper-Toronto only route. I'm not sure I like the idea, but if one reinstituted a Winnipeg-Calgary-Banff branch, I might be persuaded. Or, change the fare structure for the portion in the mountains to level the playing field for two competitors a little.

- Paul
Now that is an interesting thought on structure…

I don’t think I much like it on first glance as is, but how about routing through Prince George (cutting the Skeena back to there), reinstituting BC Rail corridor service along the way? I can’t see moving the western terminal to North a Vancouver being too much of a loss for anyone. I’m not that fond of going back to two Prairie routes short of finding a way to fully restore a service that could be meaningful for shorter distance travellers, but could definitely see my way to supporting a re-route west of Winnipeg to hit both Regina and Saskatoon.

This honestly doesn’t make much sense without some kind of Alberta regional service, but a Banff - Calgary - YYC - YEG - Edmonton service would fit into this more coherently than keeping today’s route or trying to tie the Canadian directly into whatever that regional corridor becomes.
 

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One possibility that might induce RMRT to drop its opposition to a VIA fleet investment might be to give them the Rockies business and reequip the Canadian as a Jasper-Toronto only route. I'm not sure I like the idea, but if one reinstituted a Winnipeg-Calgary-Banff branch, I might be persuaded. Or, change the fare structure for the portion in the mountains to level the playing field for two competitors a little.

- Paul
Friendly reminder that RMR operates Vancouver-Jasper less than 40 times a year - spread over a period of less than 6 months:
177399A0-5315-441A-8E48-0886C9A684D0.jpeg



Now that is an interesting thought on structure…

I don’t think I much like it on first glance as is, but how about routing through Prince George (cutting the Skeena back to there), reinstituting BC Rail corridor service along the way? I can’t see moving the western terminal to North a Vancouver being too much of a loss for anyone. I’m not that fond of going back to two Prairie routes short of finding a way to fully restore a service that could be meaningful for shorter distance travellers, but could definitely see my way to supporting a re-route west of Winnipeg to hit both Regina and Saskatoon.
What is the problem you are trying to fix with either suggestion?
 

Bureaucromancer

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Friendly reminder that RMR operates Vancouver-Jasper less than 40 times a year - spread over a period of less than 6 months:
View attachment 411792



What is the problem you are trying to fix with either suggestion?

well,at least in the BC rail version there’s a reduction in total mileage operated equivalent to the eastern portion of the Skeena, while also reopening service on what was treated as an essential remote corridor until BC a rail was sold. BC Bus North is a far better service than The Canadian would ever be for locals, but the gist of the concept is to further elinate broadly parcelled VIA operation while preserving a year round VIA connection to Vancouver and gaining operation over the BC Rail corridor that, frankly, has a lot more potential for regional service at the south end than any part of today’s route.

Honestly, my preferred solution would be to build HFR West, re-route Canadian via Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon AND Regina while abandoning the pretext of the Skeena being a single train, rather operating three services: Edmonton - Prince George, Prince George - Prince Rupert and Vancouver - Prince George, scheduled to retain the overnight connection in Prince George. That, however, has no upside to someone who’s line of thinking is that VIAs mandate should be to minimize losses.
 
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