When can we expect to see better passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario?

VIA Rail has no immediate plans to improve their services in this region. Hollow promises made in 2016 to increase frequencies to Sarnia and through Stratford have not materialised. There is some good news for VIA Rail in the 2018 federal budget but it’s unclear if the planned purchase of new trains will benefit any communities west of Toronto’s Union Station.

Only recently has federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau admitted that passenger rail needs to be an integral part of Canada’s public transportation but there’s no sign of cohesive policy that commits to service expansion, stable funding and constructive dialogue with the provinces. The whim of the federal Cabinet of the day will determine what improvements VIA can achieve even though the stock-in-trade response from Ottawa is that “VIA is an arms-length Crown Corporation that is responsible for its own business”. But it clearly isn’t.

VIA Rail may be holding back on services in southwestern Ontario because they probably know that Ontario’s high-speed rail plan could eventually pillage their customer base and essentially put them out of business. So much for Transport Canada’s hollow budget utterances about the role of passenger rail in Canada’s infrastructure renaissance.

Ontario politicians have trumpeted the completion of the proposed high-speed rail line between Toronto and London by 2025. How can this happen when the Environmental Assessment (EA) process is not due for completion until March 2022? Design and construction cannot commence until the EA is complete and the involved provincial ministries sign-off on the project. Some completed EAs have languished for up to ten years before the political will existed to start building.

So, if VIA maintains their service status-quo, it could be 2030 or long after before we see better train services in this region. What will Highway 401 look like by then? And didn’t we somewhere and sometime sign a climate-change accord?

There could be major service improvements with 5 years with the needed political will and federal/provincial dialogue. But, with stalling and vote-buying taking lead roles in the decision process, let’s not hold our collective breath.