Canada tries to switch commuter rail service onto a faster track

Canada's rail passenger service has fallen behind its counterpart in the United States, and the federal government wants to do something about it. It may start by firing the board of directors and many senior officers of Via Rail, the Canadian version of Amtrak. And it is expected to put three trains back in service following a public outcry when the former Liberal government cut them in 1981.

The reason for all the commotion is that Canadians love their trains, at least they like to talk about them. They actually like to use private cars, planes, and buses. Trains account for only about 2 percent of the personal travel in Canada.

Because train travel has declined dramatically since World War II, governments have been spending money on roads and airports. That's just the problem, according to Greg Gormick, executive director of Transport 2000, a passenger rail lobbying group based in Ottawa.

``It's all politics,'' Mr. Gormick says. ``Previous governments were more concerned with air and roads and they let rail slip. It's amazing trains even survived.''

Pressure groups have kept the train problem and the problems of Via Rail a hot political topic in Canada. Many of the things they have been after look as if they might just happen -- restored train service, for example. Lobbyists could even find themselves running the railroad, if the minister of transport fires Via Rail's board of directors this week as expected.

The Conservative government is keeping an election promise by putting three trains back in service. One route is Vancouver-Jasper-Edmonton, the scenic northern route through the Rockies. That route, canceled because there was a southern transcontinental train through the Rockies, was favored by Japanese tourists, who spend some $10 million a year in Jasper.

Also likely to be revived are a run from Toronto to Peterborough, Ontario, that serves commuters and weekend and summer vacationers, and a train from Montreal to St. John, New Brunswick, that is faster than the other train from Montreal to the Maritimes.

Via Rail loses $450 million Canadian ($337 million US) a year -- and doesn't run the trains on time. Via says its trains had an on-time record of 82 percent last year, up from 42 percent in 1983.

Many people argue that a transcontinental train isn't what the railways are all about anyway. They want a fast, on-time service in the densely populated strip of Canada along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes -- the Quebec City to Windsor corridor, as train buffs call it.

But Via and its predecessors have never been able to deliver the goods.

The trains in ``the corridor'' ran on time more than 80 percent of the time last year, but even if they run at peak capacity they can't go faster than 90 miles an hour. Trains in the United States can go 125 miles an hour on similar busy routes between New York and Washington.

Minister of Transportation Donald Mazankowski plans to clear up part of the Canadian train mess by making several announcements in Ottawa this week. Will Pierre Franche, the president of Via Rail, be fired? Will Via itself be turned over to Canadian National Railways, the government-owned railway?

No matter what the announcement, it seems that the troubles of the Canadian passenger train are not going to be solved overnight. And it is going to be difficult to solve them without spending money. So far the deficit-conscious Tories have cut $70 million from Via's budget. That may be no way to fund a railroad.

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