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Invest in trains
Published: October 20th 2008
Source: Globe & Mail
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The financial crisis has not stopped the United States from investing in its transportation infrastructure. President George W. Bush on Thursday signed legislation for $14-billion in funding to boost service and safety measures in the American passenger rail system over the next five years. The relevance of rail is rising with gas prices and environmental awareness and the Canadian government should follow the U.S. lead by making meaningful investment in the country's passenger train service.

A year ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced funding for infrastructure and upgrading equipment in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor - where VIA Rail earned 80 per cent of its annual revenue last year. But the funding, although billed as "the largest capital investment program" in the Crown corporation's history, is not nearly enough.

The good news is that Mr. Flaherty (expected to remain in cabinet and likely as finance minister) appears to be a train enthusiast: This year he included funding in the federal budget to revive passenger rail service from Toronto through his Whitby-Oshawa riding to Peterborough - a route dubbed the "pork-barrel express" by critics. Politics have affected the fortunes of VIA Rail since it was split from Canadian National into a Crown corporation in 1978. These days VIA Rail looks less like a transcontinental railway than a regional service with some expensive tourist options.

If Mr. Flaherty seeks to improve transportation options for Canadians, not just Ontarians, he has an opportunity now. The outlook for passenger rail in North America is looking up, if the experience in the United States is any indicator. Amtrak reported a 14 per cent increase in revenues totalling $1.7 billion over the last fiscal year and a record number of passengers -28.7 million - an increase of more than 11 per cent. In 2007, VIA Rail had more than four million passengers, for the third year in a row.

There is still plenty to dissuade passengers from choosing the train over the plane or driving themselves. VIA's on-time performance dropped by seven percentage points from 2006.

The company needs to improve its own controllable delays and negotiate a deal with CN so that freight traffic no longer pushes VIA trains to the sidings. Funding should be sufficient to increase service levels, not merely maintain them.

The U.S. government has chosen to respond to Amtrak's increasing popularity by increasing its funding to boost service and safety to keep up with demand.

Canada should do the same, and a period of economic turmoil is a good time for such government investment.

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