On track for help
July 29, 2008
Source: The Examiner
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Trains move people, and they move freight.
Outside of high population areas, passenger trains tend to run in the
red. However, they are better for the environment than automobiles and
reduce traffic congestion on roads, so governments operate and subsidize
Freight lines make money, particularly in high population areas but also
on less busy routes. As a result they are still owned by private
companies and operate without government subsidies.
Those basic differences between two sides of the same transportation
system are important to keep in mind now that the federal and provincial
governments have agreed on a $12.4 billion infrastructure program for
Locally, much of the interest in last week's announcement of a Building
Canada Fund deal between Ottawa and Queen's Park centred on the proposed
return of a Toronto to Peterborough passenger train.
The "new" news was that each partner has committed to set aside $150
million for track upgrades and new locomotives and passenger cars.
However, final approval is still conditional. A study to determine how
many people would likely ride the train and the actual up-front and
annual operating costs is to be complete by next March. It will have to
show train service is viable.
That position is not substantially different from where the two sides
sat several months ago when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty
announced federal funding for a train in his 2008-09 budget. Ottawa,
through Flaherty, still says the study results will be positive and a
train is coming. Ontario is still saying wait and see, but has now put a
number to its potential contribution -$150 million.
Earmarking funds is step toward the pro-train camp, but Ontario still
isn't showing the unconditional enthusiasm of Flaherty or fellow MP Dean
The wait-and-see attitude toward passenger service is prudent.
However, there is a second consideration. That track that would have to
be upgraded for a commuter train that now exists only in the minds of
ardent supporters is owned by a private company, CP Rail. It is being
used every day by very real freight trains.
But it is not used very efficiently. In some places the condition and
alignment of the track restrict speeds to as low as 15 km-hour. Freight
lines in other parts of the province face similar problems.
The dozen or so rail freight companies that use those lines say they
could be upgraded province-wide to handle "fast freight" at a cost of
$220 million. The bill for the Toronto- Peterborough line is estimated
at $22 million.
The Building Canada Fund allows for government contributions to
privately owned infrastructure. The rail companies are asking to get in
on a three-way split: $73.3 million each from the companies, Ottawa and
Queen's Park. That's the same deal being offered to municipalities for
The argument for public investment in freight lines is solid. A study
released last September by the U. S. Department of Transportation and
the National Waterways Foundation compared the public impact of
investment in waterways, roads and rail lines to move freight. It showed
that on average, freight trains can move 2.7 times as much material as
transport trucks using the same amount of fuel.
In terms of air pollution, the two modes produce almost identical
amounts of hydrocarbons and particulates. However, transport trucks pour
out more than double the amount of carbon monoxide and 10 per cent more
nitrogen oxides to move the same loads.
Trains run on rails and trucks on roads. Ontario taxpayers will spend
$1.5 billion this year building and improving roads. The rail companies
are asking for a $73.3 million contribution spread over several years
toward a more efficient, greener transport system that also reduces road
And on the Toronto to Peterborough line, a private-sector contribution
would reduce taxpayers' cost of an upgrade for passenger service.
Even if local passenger train service doesn't prove to be viable in the
near future, public investment in the freight deserves serious