Freight Gets Preference Over People.

Those of us working to improve and expand passenger rail in the U.S. complain about how the freight railroads have slowly reneged on the original agreement—that Amtrak would pay to run passenger trains over the freight railroads’ track and, in return, they would give preference to Amtrak trains.

That was then; this is now. And Amtrak’s on-time performance is not good and getting worse.

If on-time performance is a problem for Amtrak, I’ll bet that VIA Rail, Amtrak’s equivalent north of the border, would trade places in a heartbeat.

This is the view from a choice seat in the dome atop the bullet-ended Park Car that traditionally brings up the rear of VIA Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian. The Rockies are in sight and this popular rail journey will end tomorrow morning in Vancouver, B.C.

VIA trains run almost exclusively on track belonging to Canadian National Railway and when the CN dispatcher has a choice to make–Do I let the CN freight proceed or do I give the VIA train a green light–more often that not it’s the VIA train that sits and waits.

The fact is, as a practical matter, CN has the power to control VIA travel times, to dictate VIA schedules and to deny any liability for causing VIA delays.

Because of that one-sided arrangement with Canadian National, late trains are a serious problem all over the VIA system. But it’s VIA’s flagship train, The Canadian, which follows a spectacular route between Toronto and Vancouver, that’s been the most affected.

After running chronically late literally for years, VIA arbitrarily added almost an entire half-day to the Canadian’s schedule in an effort to provide passengers with a timetable that bore some resemblance to reality . . . and the reality sucks!

Recently, we had a good indication of how the Canadian government is going to deal with the issue of many hundreds of VIA passengers being inconvenienced virtually every day: Transport Minister Marc Garneau declined to be interviewed on the subject, but his spokesman said that VIA has the tools to resolve conflicts with CN so there’s no need for any new legislation.

At least we seem to have found one area where we’ve got a system that works better than theirs . . . if only marginally so.