STANDING COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORT
LE COMITÉ PERMANENT DES TRANSPORTS
[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]
Wednesday, April 29, 1998
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen (Etobicoke North,
Lib.): Could we call the meeting to order, please.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is meeting
22 of the Standing Committee on Transport.
We're here today to continue our review of the
passenger rail services in Canada, and ways in which we
can revitalize, re-energize and make viable passenger
rail services in Canada.
We know how important the
rail system is to municipalities in Canada. It connects
cities, there are commuter trains, and there is a whole host of
other impacts on Canadian municipalities.
delighted today to have with us the Federation of
I'd also like to welcome some young people from the
Forum for Young Canadians who are joining us today.
They're here in Ottawa from all over Canada to
participate in and witness our political process in
Ottawa. So I welcome them.
I gather Mr. Knight is not
present here today. Who will be leading the discussion
on your side? Is it Mayor—
Mr. Bill Comaskey (Mayor of Thompson, Manitoba):
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Mr. Comaskey,
may I ask you to introduce your colleagues. Then the
way we normally work is that if you could present for 10
to 15 minutes, we'll open the floor for questions and
comments from the members of the committee. Thank you.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm
pleased to be here today to speak to you on behalf of
the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
With me today are Fiona Dellar, a policy analyst
with the FCM, and Daniel McGregor,
a senior policy analyst with the FCM.
I'd like to
recognize and thank our member of Parliament from the
Churchill constituency, Bev Desjarlais, for being here.
Bev, we meet many times.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais (Churchill, NDP): I didn't know
he was were going to be here today.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I didn't know you were going to
be here either.
An hon. member: Only once.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Bill Comaskey: So I do also bring you greetings on
behalf of the City of Thompson.
Mr. Stan Keyes (Hamilton West, Lib.): She's rarely
there, is she?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: She's there a lot.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Oh, I see.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: She's there
quite a bit.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: At the grocery store.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Yes, we meet every day on the
street when she's in her constituency.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to speak
to you on the future of passenger rail in Canada, on
behalf of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities,
which is FCM.
FCM has been recognized since 1937 as the national
voice of municipal governments. It represents the
interests of municipalities on policy program matters
within federal jurisdiction. Municipal governments
constituting FCM's membership represent more than 20
million Canadians. Members include Canada's largest
cities, small urban and rural communities, and the 17
major provincial and territorial associations. Almost
all municipalities that lost VIA Rail service in the
1990s are members of FCM.
FCM has always supported the
provision of a cost-effective passenger rail service
from coast to coast. In a country as vast and as
sparsely populated as Canada, an efficient, accessible
and affordable transportation system is the necessary
link between communities. It helps forge a sense of
national identity, which is essential to our continued
In this context transportation is more than simply
the movement of goods and passengers. It is the glue
that holds us together. If we were to have a truly
national passenger rail service, a reasonable and
reliable service should exist from coast to coast.
This is particularly important at a time when smaller
communities are having to manage and accommodate the
offloading of federal ports and airports.
Larger cities are having their airports and ports turned over
to local authorities. As this committee is aware,
these transactions are not running as smoothly as
predicted, particularly for some marginal communities
handling Canada port authorities and national airport
As part of its national
transportation policy, the federal government must
consider the effects of communities of offloading,
divesting, abandoning or decreasing all modes of
transportation simultaneously. We believe this message
would have been heard consistently if cross-Canada
hearings had been held as we had suggested.
CN president and CEO, Paul Tellier, urged you not to look
at VIA in isolation but to factor in other
transportation realities. This is an excellent
suggestion. Any changes to the passenger rail network
in Canada are changes that occur within the context of
a national transportation system in flux and, in some
instances, in disorder. This disorder is felt keenly
by communities that are finding it more and more
difficult to rely on VIA Rail services as a means of
passenger transportation at a time when passenger
transportation as a whole is in turmoil.
For instance, although they
retain their passenger rail service on the CN line,
northern Manitobans have been faced
over the last decade with growing
unreliability and reduced quality of service.
Although there is a regular timetable for trains in
northern Manitoba, VIA is seldom able to keep to it.
Trains can be as late as one to twelve hours and, on
occasion, are completely cancelled. This has left local
merchants, residents, tourists and travel agents upset
Another problem is the loss of local
VIA agents along the northern lines, meaning that
communities have had to rely on the services of agents four
provinces away. These agents seldom have any knowledge
of northern Manitoba and they have little interest in
finding out where a train might be or when it may be
arriving at its destination.
Finally, a common complaint heard is that VIA staff
are often rude and unhelpful to train passengers. This
adds to the discomfort of passenger rail and drives off
customers, many of whom are tourists.
One local travel
agent has informed me that she continually has requests
for larger parties to rent an entire car. VIA
invariably says no to these requests, even when the
potential customer is willing to pay a premium price
for the ability to keep their party together for a trip
to Churchill, Manitoba.
Another local resident tells
me she has encountered many difficulties with the
passenger rail service. On numerous occasions
reservations have been cancelled by VIA, leaving people
hanging. However, when she went down to the station to
speak to officials, she was told there were many seats
One has to wonder why cancellations occur when there
are seats available.
She also recalls stories of
American tourists who have made States-side reservations,
only to find upon their arrival in Thompson that their
reservations were cancelled.
It is also quite common for tourists to be forced to
ride in the baggage car, as the train is often
The rail link has become one of Canada's most
treasured tourist commodities, and to deny tourists
suitable accommodations is a great disservice to all
tourists, tourism operators and the reputation of
Canada as a preferred tourist destination.
Another consideration is the effect of freight rail
abandonment on passenger rail. We have not yet fully
seen the effects of CN and CP rail abandonment on VIA,
which is dependent upon these tracks for passenger rail
operations, but it can only be a matter of time. We ask
the committee to keep the impacts of CN and CP rail
line abandonment in mind when considering the future of
The 1992 Royal Commission on National Passenger
Transportation concluded that passenger automobile
transportation benefits from $3.4 billion annually in
public subsidies. Continuing federal budget cuts to VIA
Rail will decrease passenger rail subsidies to
approximately $170 million per year by 1999. It is
clear from these figures that all modes of
transportation are not operating on a level playing
field. Passenger rail has been undermined by continued
government financing of automobile travel through the
funding of highway maintenance and upgrade.
FCM believes that all three levels of government must
cooperate and come to an agreement on the mix of
passenger transport services for Canada so that one
mode of transportation is not continually undermining
the viability of another.
In a speech to this committee in February, the Minister
of Transport asked whether we need a national passenger
rail service. From municipalities across the country
the answer is yes, we are very much in need of a
national passenger rail service. It is not simply a
matter of sentiment or nostalgia. Passenger rail
connects communities and connects Canadians.
When we speak of a national passenger rail service
we are referring not only to service in heavily
populated areas—for instance, the Quebec-Windsor
corridor—or major tourist routes such as between
Vancouver and Calgary; we are also speaking of a service that
connects small and remote communities as well as large
urban communities. Many of these smaller and more
remote communities have already felt the effects of
cuts to VIA Rail funding and it is imperative they
should not be subjected to a further erosion of
passenger rail service.
For many Canadians, particularly those in western and
Atlantic provinces, previous VIA cuts have strengthened
the feelings of isolation and alienation vis-à-vis central
Canada, which is perceived as more and more arrogant and
FCM commends VIA Rail's decision of finding new and
innovative ways of making VIA a cost-efficient
enterprise. For instance, high-price tourist
routes and cross-border services should
complement rather than replace the national rail
service. Reliable and accessible passenger rail
service must be provided to Canadian communities from
coast to coast. Rail is the most energy-efficient and
environmentally friendly mode of intercity
The government must acknowledge its responsibility as
the guardian of national passenger rail service. It
should be remembered that the government created VIA
Rail and therefore is accountable for its operations.
The Minister of Transport has asked you to think
creatively about solutions to the problems facing
passenger rail in the country. You cannot depend
entirely upon outside interests to provide the
solutions; it is neither realistic nor responsible.
Any review of the future of passenger rail must
include honest and open environmental and economic
assessments. It must take into account the impact policy
decisions have on other modes of transportation and on all
three orders of government.
The importance of this cannot be overstated, especially
at a time when Canada has committed to decreasing
greenhouse gas emissions by 6% from 1990 levels to the
year 2012. A decrease in rail service means an
increase in car transportation and therefore an
increase in traffic congestion, greenhouse gas
emissions and an increase on the wear and tear of our
already crowded and crumbling municipal and provincial
If transportation policy is to evolve along
environmentally sound principles, as the Minister of
Transport has so often claimed it should, then
environmental assessments must not be an afterthought.
They must be an integral part of transportation policy.
Just as there are measurable environment costs and
benefits to all transportation policy options, there
are measurable economic costs and benefits as well.
A revitalized rail service should not only improve
contact and access between Canadians and communities;
it would also provide employment and economic
development opportunities due to increased travel and
Canadians faced with a decrease or abandonment of
passenger rail service to their communities will, out of
necessity, turn to other forms of passenger
transportation: buses, cars and air travel for the most
These modes of transportation are harsher on the
environment, and in the case of buses and cars, they
are less safe than rail travel and have large hidden
costs for provincial and municipal governments that
have not been taken into account.
Cuts to passenger rail service may reduce direct
federal costs, but expenses to provincial and municipal
governments in the shape of road maintenance and
upgrading will increase. It costs the provinces and
municipalities billions to maintain and build highways
to accommodate the increased traffic and wear and tear
that heavy vehicles, including buses, cause.
Related to the issue of interdependence of different
modes of transportation is multimodal integration.
Passenger rail service cannot be considered in
isolation from its effects on other modes of passenger
The FCM believes that it is necessary to look at all
transportation policy in Canada as an integrated whole.
Intermodal integration is necessary to foster economic
and service efficiencies.
It should be possible for
the traveller to move easily from passenger rail to
another mode of transportation. Excellent examples of
intermodal service integration can be found throughout
Europe, where in many instances ticketing and baggage
handling have been integrated between the air and rail
Integration between intercity and public transit
systems is also critical to the efficiency of the
whole. All intercity travel ends in local
jurisdictions, and the ability to complete any trip is
very much dependent on some form of local passenger
Rapid rail transportation from airports to the
downtown core should exist in major urban centres. At
both Dorval and Pearson airports, for example, existing
rail lines are literally within sight of air terminals.
At Halifax Airport the line is within two kilometres
of the terminal.
The same principle applies to the linking of rail and
bus modes. Bus operators must be encouraged to work
rail system, not against it, by providing
While we recognize that the primary responsibility for
public transit must rest with provinces and
municipalities, the need for passenger transportation
integration clearly suggests enhanced federal
The FCM supports a legislative mandate for VIA that would
allow it the flexibility to borrow money, find private
investors, and build on its existing structure.
The FCM cautions, however, against the full privatization
of VIA. Full privatization of the corporation would
certainly mean that much of the current network of
passenger rail would be abandoned as not economically
viable. In a privatized system profit comes before
public interest, and Canada would end up with a system
of rail lines that services heavily populated areas
This is not a national rail service. We all know that
no national passenger rail service in the world is
The FCM calls upon this committee to recommend
legislation to provide VIA Rail with a clear operating
mandate and the ability to carry out that mandate.
The legislation should also make provisions for an
interdependent board of directors and
management, a set of clearly attainable fiscal
performance goals, and a guarantee of an equitable and
adequate level of passenger rail service across the
It has been suggested by VIA that a favourable option
would be to give VIA the status of a commercial crown
corporation. This would allow VIA to operate as a
business with the ability to access financial markets
effectively, and to partner with private interests.
The FCM is in favour of this option as long as it
doesn't blur the ultimate responsibility of the federal
government to ensure that a national passenger rail
service is secured for today and the future.
Even without further cuts to VIA, a decrease in the
quality of service is inevitable without the means to
purchase new equipment. VIA's equipment has been
inadequate for far too long. While there have been
overhauls and updates, the aged equipment VIA is
currently using on some routes is expensive to
maintain and subject to random failure.
reconstruction, or preferably replacement, will make
passenger rail work in Canada. VIA can no longer
operate an efficient and desirable service with the
equipment it now has than could Air Canada with a fleet
VIA Rail must be given the means and flexibility to
find the capital it needs to update its equipment so
that it may provide an adequate standard of service to
Canadians and attract the ridership it needs. The FCM
believes that an efficient, safe and high-standard
passenger rail service will be successful.
High-speed rail is an excellent example of the
importance of new equipment for a revitalization of
passenger rail in Canada. The FCM has long supported
high-speed rail as the cornerstone of a rejuvenated
national passenger network.
High-speed rail in the
Quebec-Windsor corridor, and possibly elsewhere in the
country, would increase customer satisfaction and
ridership, improve public safety, and decrease highway
congestion and air pollution. Profitable high-speed
rail could support the passenger rail network in the
rest of the country.
There comes a time when the government has to make a
commitment to long-term operation and viability of a
national rail service. For many years the government
has been acting in a discretionary, ad
hoc manner towards VIA Rail, and it's time to make a
We are asking not for a light commitment,
but a well thought-out strategy for VIA Rail that
spells out the role of the government vis-à-vis the
We believe that this plan should identify a national
rail system that services the entire country, and
include a legislated mandate for VIA as well as a
commitment from government to a constant level of
funding that is stable and reliable over a certain
number of years.
In conclusion, to achieve a revitalized passenger rail
system in Canada VIA must access to capital funds. The
government can do its part by committing to a constant
level of funding over the long term.
be considered as an area for reinvestment of the
coming budget surpluses. Ensuring the future of
passenger rail should be high on this list.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank
you very much, Mr. Comaskey.
In your presentation you mentioned cross-Canada
hearings. I'd just like to comment that it
is the intention and plan of this committee to
consult with Canadians more broadly once we have
identified some options, and once we've had some
feedback from the government with respect to certain
I'm not sure if that's what you're referring
to, but I would just like to make that comment.
Now we'll turn to questions. Mr. Morrison.
Mr. Lee Morrison (Cypress Hills—Grasslands, Ref.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and welcome, Mr.
I want to ask one rather general question. Then since
you are from Thompson, I would like to ask some
technical specifics about the Bay line.
First, I will turn to the general question. You do
mention in your presentation that you propose that VIA
could find private investors to cooperate with them.
I just wonder how you would propose that anyone
could be convinced to invest in VIA.
Alternatively, are you perhaps proposing the British
system, where they have a multitude of small,
privately owned rail lines? All of them are being
heavily subsidized by the government. So in effect,
instead of subsidizing the crown, all they're doing now
is subsidizing private interests. What exactly
are you getting at?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I believe a study was done in
1995, and I'll use the Quebec-Windsor
corridor as an example. Bombardier has expressed an
interest and has been involved in that.
We believe there has to be a system that's
cross-subsidized. Some of the more remote, sparsely
populated areas will have to benefit from some of the
more lucrative markets. If that is considered and
accomplished, then private investors certainly will want to
have a return on their investment, but we believe that
Government cannot distance itself from it. There is
no system we know of that's fully cost-effective.
Mr. Lee Morrison: On my specifics, again,
since you are from Thompson you may
well gather the Bay line is perhaps the most prickly question facing
this committee. Because of all of these operations, it is
one that actually can hardly be easily replaced because
there is no option for it.
It is also, in terms of cross-subsidization, far and
away the most expensive of all of VIA's operations.
Could you tell me offhand how many passengers a day
ordinarily use the Bay line, and more specifically
since you are from Thompson, how many would actually
de-train at your town on an average given day?
Have you any idea?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I can't give you the exact
number, but many people use the Bay line not only for trips to a
tourist destination like Churchill but
also as their only means of transportation.
I can drive down to the station, or our member of
Parliament, Bev Desjarlais, can do the same thing, and
we can see a lot of people sitting around outside on
packsacks or on their coats or on the ground, waiting
to see if the train will arrive.
Some of the examples of not being able to get on the
train are illustrated in the brief. Some of them
have to get into the baggage car
because there's not enough room in the coach. Without
knowing the exact number, that would illustrate how
many people are using the train.
Also, the prairies marketing representative for VIA
tells us they cannot get cars. If they could get
cars from their headquarters, they could market them on
So there's a bit of a myth out there. I've
heard VIA people say they only had 17¢ of recovery
on the dollar, and they left the impression that we in
northern Manitoba or in northern Canada should be under a
compliment to have a rail line at all, and that we were
heavily subsidized by the rest of the country. Then I
hear others saying we need an $8 billion
high-speed train from Windsor to Quebec City.
It's an economic development issue to parts of the
country; it's a necessity to people in northern
Mr. Lee Morrison: On the basis, then, of it being a
necessary service, which I concur with, by the way,
should we not perhaps be thinking
about something cheaper than full trains—about day liners,
for example? Would it be practical for this local
traffic that you're talking about, and assuming that
Omnitrax would agree, to just hook some sleeping cars
and a diner at the tail-end of a grain train and spend
two or three days getting to Churchill?
Is there any merit, in your view, in something like
this that might be viable? On that last
suggestion particularly, it would cost practically
nothing to drag that passenger train behind a grain
train. Have you or your people looked at anything like
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We are open to any sort of
suggestion, but please don't consider us as cargo.
We have had people
ask to go to Churchill to see the whales and the
bears. So many of them could get there, but they
could only promise that 11 of them could get
back. Anything that will work— we don't mind as long
as it's not a hit-and-miss system. We need to have
something that is reliable and on schedule.
VIA, in our opinion, has the responsibility to provide the
passenger service and I don't believe they're
being given the support by their head office. Also,
with the number of dollars being cut out of
their budget they just can't possibly put the
equipment on the line.
So whatever it takes to get more traffic on the
line— not just do with what we have or have a reduction in
what we have right now. There are people who
will come into Thompson for a medical examination, and
if they miss the train or they don't get into the
baggage car, they miss their medical appointment. If
they get into Thompson and they don't get into the
baggage car on their way home, they're there for
another two days.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank
you, Mr. Morrison.
Mr. Murray Calder
(Dufferin—Peel—Wellington—Grey, Lib.): Thank you
very much, Mr. Chairman.
Bill, I noticed in your report here that you're saying
that if we increase passenger rail or enhance it, or
however this committee is eventually going to figure it
out, there probably will be fewer cars
on the road and therefore the greenhouse gases and
everything— In fact, I read a report when I was on the
CN task force that for every dollar investment in the
rail infrastructure, there's about a $4 to $5 savings
in the road infrastructure. Would you agree with that?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Yes.
Mr. Murray Calder: Okay. In that situation, then,
if we do come up with something
that enhances the passenger rail system, and
it is saving municipalities $4 to $5 on the road
system, would you be interested in chipping into that
type of enhancement in the passenger rail system?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: No.
Mr. Murray Calder: Why not?
An hon. member: The rubber hits the road right
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Every effort being made
nowadays is to pass it over to the municipalities.
Governments are applauding themselves with the
balancing budgets. At the municipal level we've been
doing that all along. It's no big accomplishment as
far as we're concerned.
I say this with respect. I'm
sure that many of you who are sitting here on this
committee have had the opportunity to serve at the
municipal level as well. You know what it's like. We
don't believe it's our responsibility to collect
taxes within our municipality to subsidize highways.
Mr. Dan McGregor (Senior Policy Analyst, Federation
of Canadian Municipalities): Perhaps I might add to that. The
annual report of Transport Canada issued last year
showed that federal spending on transportation has
declined from 4.1% of total federal spending to 1.8% in
During virtually the same period,
municipal spending on transportation increased from $3
billion in 1981-82 to $6.5 billion in 1993-94. In
fact, if you look
at the spending of the three orders of government,
federal spending has been decreasing both in real
terms and in constant dollars. Provincial and
municipal spending has been increasing tremendously,
largely as a result of the withdrawal of the federal
government from its traditional role in terms of
supporting air transportation, ports, shipping. The
list goes on and on.
So now you're saying, can we cut a deal and have you
spent some more on it? I think the mayor is
representing the view of our board of directors quite
correctly. It appears that the buck keeps going
down to the municipal government level, where the basis
of taxation is property tax, which is far more
regressive than income taxes, which the federal
government has to draw from.
Mr. Murray Calder: We just finished off what
the municipalities in my riding have said was a very
successful project, and it was called the infrastructure
program. So what I'm talking about here is not really
too different from that type of program, where you had
the three levels of government working together to
build something that everybody was going to benefit
Mr. Bill Comaskey: There's no disagreement from
us on that. That was
an excellent program and it's probably one of the few
times I've heard it called the three levels of
Again, with respect, it was
considered the federal-municipal infrastructure
program and then there was the federal-provincial-municipal
infrastructure program. In our city, we bought into
that. I will use that as an example. We agreed to it,
and on our projects we paid more than our third. It
was supposed to be a three-way split. It was
infrastructure for a subdivision that had deteriorated
to the point where it had to be to replaced, and when
it came down to the final decision on it, the
municipality paid the lion's share of it.
But when they presented us with the plaque, all it wanted
to say was federal and provincial infrastructure
I say that by way of agreeing with what you
said with regard to the municipalities. We did buy
into that and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities
national board of directors was disappointed there
wasn't a new announcement in the last budget.
Mr. Murray Calder: Okay, that's good enough.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank you, Mr.
Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les
Basques, BQ): While I was listening to your presentation, I was
thinking of an ad that I saw in Europe. Someone was cooking himself
a soft boiled egg, and instead of using his watch to keep an eye on
the time, he watched for the next train to come along, which was
expected in three minutes, just the amount of time he needed to
boil his egg. If that had happened in Canada, I think the fellow
would have gone through all the eggs in Canada, because we have a
major problem with the reliability of Canadian trains.
In La Pocatière, I often waited for a train that only got in
at 3:00 a.m., even though theoretically, it was supposed to have
arrived at 9:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. or midnight. Once that happens two
or three times, you end up taking your own car.
A few years ago, they wanted to shut down the line that went
all the way to Gaspé in Quebec. There were public hearings, and
people realized that this railway line could be very useful for
tourism purposes. Apparently today the line is profitable, unless
I'm mistaken, or in any event, it is managing to do pretty well.
Now I would like to ask you a question about something that
goes somewhat beyond your brief. Don't you think that the solution
to the funding problem would be to first have a board of directors
for VIA Rail that included people from the tourism industry,
environmentalists, municipal officials, the provinces, rail
experts, users—my list is not exhaustive—who would represent the
entire industry, and who would learn how to work together and find
common interests so as to develop some kind of medium term funding?
Secondly, don't you think the mandate should be clear? In
other words, the profitable lines would have a mandate to make
money, but the government would commit to providing compensation to
less profitable lines. Don't you think that these are the first
things to be done? In any event, that is what I got from your
brief. The federal government should keep some kind of a role so
that the problems with the Montreal airport don't happen again. In
that particular case, they stretched the elastic band so far that
it snapped. Do you think we should make such recommendations in our
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I think that's an excellent
recommendation. Even in northern Quebec—I'm getting
off the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' position
on it now, but Transport 2000— I have attended some of
the meetings and we are a participating member. I'm
somewhat familiar with the rail service in northern
Back to the position paper, we have said we
would welcome a board of directors where there would be
an opportunity for the board to make policy decisions
with regard to how the service is provided. In order
to do that, we believe the federal government needs to
give them a legislated mandate and perhaps create a
crown corporation. But I agree with you.
Mr. Paul Crête: Moreover, there is more and more north-south
trade in North America. We have the traditional east-west volume,
but there is more and more north-south volume. Even in terms of
passenger rail, shouldn't our rail transportation policy take this
into account and favour investment in infrastructure over the next
10 to 15 years to meet this need for north-south development?
The growth in north-south traffic is much greater than the
growth of east-west traffic.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: That is also an excellent
suggestion. At the end of May there's a summit in
Winnipeg hosted by Mayor Susan Thompson. It's to
discuss transportation links from Mexico up through the
central United States, through Winnipeg, through
Thompson, up to Churchill and the port of Churchill and
beyond. We see that as a great national opportunity to
increase north-south transportation in Canada. So I
would like to ask the committee to consider that in its
Mr. Paul Crête: I have one last question. Have your members or
the general public said anything to you about bilingualism within
the VIA Rail network? Myself, when I used to take VIA Rail, I
usually noticed that there was no service in French, even when we
were crossing through Quebec.
Mr. Dan McGregor: Until now, we haven't received any such
Mr. Paul Crête: Thank you.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Okay, Mr.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Comaskey, thank you for your presentation. There
are three areas in it that I would probably challenge.
I won't take up the time of the committee challenging
them all, but I will challenge one. But first, on the
route to Thompson and your community, what percentage
of tourists versus commuters use that service?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: It's very limited right now
because there's no attempt or effort made to market.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Would you be marketing for
tourists or for commuters?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We would market for tourists,
and if that be by commuter, that certainly would satisfy
the need. Tourism is a growth industry, as we see
it. It has not been tapped yet.
Mr. Stan Keyes: If tourism is a growth area and
tourists take up the greatest number of passengers that
might come to your community, would you see any
opportunity for the federal government to take that
chunk of line and say they're going to offer that to the
private sector and say, if you can run a tourist train
to Thompson, it's for sale?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: No.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Why?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: It goes back to the argument
that VIA will make with respect to cost recovery. If
we are told that right now, in order to run the train
from Winnipeg to Churchill, the cost recovery is 17¢,
and if we use from Borden to—-
Mr. Stan Keyes: Let's talk numbers, Mr. Comaskey.
Outside of the tourist market, how many people are
going to be using that train for transportation
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Lots, because even some of the
people who need to get to and from their communities
right now are bumped off it in the peak tourist season.
Mr. Stan Keyes: You say lots, but I want you to be
more specific. Lots is 100.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: Thousands, thousands.
Mr. Stan Keyes: It may be cheaper to give
everyone a Chevy than to put in a rail line, so let's
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thousands. I don't have them
with me right now, but the numbers are available of the
people who go to Churchill each year. Many of them are
left behind because they can't get on a car, and many
people going home to their communities can't get on a
car either. So it's very hard to measure how many
people would be using it.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Okay.
You're talking as a representative of communities and
municipalities across Canada, and not just of your own
community. On page 11 you say FCM believes that an
efficient, safe, fast high-standard passenger rail
service will be successful. How do you define
Mr. Bill Comaskey: It depends on the marketplace.
I have to give you an honest answer to the
Quebec-Windsor high-speed train project.
disagreeing with the FCM's policy on it right now, but
I have a real problem with spending $8 billion and
Mr. Stan Keyes: Let's not go to that extreme.
Let's just say we're going to increase passenger rail
service with substantially better cars, etc., regular
timetables and all that kind of thing, between Toronto
and Montreal—corridor-specific. What would be your
definition of successful?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: It would be if the customer is
satisfied and it's paying its way.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Do you think more people get on
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Yes, I do.
Mr. Stan Keyes: How do you know this? Our
experience in going abroad—for example, even with 8
million people living in Paris alone, and even with the
government subsidizing rail service to the tune of $2.5
billion every year, they can't get more than 7% of
their travelling public to use the train, because people
love the car and they love to fly. So how can you say
it would be more successful if in a country like
France, where the government goes into debt to spend
$2.5 billion a year, they only get 7% of their population
to take the train?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: But it's an event right now to
get on the train.
Mr. Stan Keyes: It's an event?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Yes, an event. In our brief we
mentioned that if there are intermodal connections— Right
now people travelling by air or by other modes of
transportation—in order to go on the train, you're
Mr. Stan Keyes: But France has all those
intermodal connections. You get off a plane at Charles
de Gaulle Airport, jump on a train and go to your
community. People still don't use the train, but
you're saying they will in Canada. Why will they in
Canada but not in a place like France, which has the
population, the mass and the money? People still don't
use the train.
Mr. Dan McGregor: One of the ways we look at it is
in terms of the appropriate mix of passenger
transportation that a country wants to have. There are
various ways of looking at it. One is what people will
buy on the open market, but there are other measures,
including environmental issues. Mr. Calder raised the
issue of infrastructure costs earlier.
So if France is spending $2.5 billion a year on
subsidizing passenger rail, the question is how much
money are they then saving on road infrastructure?
France is a unitary state, so it's not as complicated
an issue as it is in this country.
Mr. Stan Keyes: Zero is saved.
Mr. Dan McGregor: How do you know that? How
Mr. Stan Keyes: Because there's gridlock on their
Mr. Murray Calder: That's right.
Mr. Dan McGregor: But how much more would they be
spending if there weren't people on those rail systems?
Mr. Stan Keyes: So FCM's position is that $2.5
billion to support a passenger rail service that
collects no more than 7% of the total travelling public
Mr. Dan McGregor: We're not commenting on French
Mr. Stan Keyes: Okay, then let's per capita those
numbers down to Canada. Are you prepared to spend
hundreds of millions of dollars a year to only get 4%
of your travelling public on the train?
Mr. Dan McGregor: What we've been—
Mr. Stan Keyes: Is that what you're telling me?
Mr. Dan McGregor: No, we've consistently said that
we think all three orders of government should sit
together and attempt to define a vision of the relative
weight of the various modes of passenger transportation
in this country. That hasn't been done.
We're certainly willing to come to the table. We've
offered that on a number of occasions. We're part of
the mix. As the Royal Commission on National Passenger
Transportation pointed out, the passenger auto mode is
subsidized to the tune of $3.4 billion per year in this
country. The passenger air mode is almost $1 billion
per year, and now the passenger rail mode is down to
$170 million per year. So there is hardly a level
playing field in this country.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Mr. Stan Keyes: That's why I am saying what I'm
saying. I'm trying to explain why that is the way it
Mr. Dan McGregor: Yes, but it could be that if
there was a more level playing field, we wouldn't even
be having this discussion.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank you, Mr.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: I want to give Mr. Comaskey a
break here. Since you're from Thompson and I'm
here, they probably think we're always on the same
side. I want to assure you that's not always the case.
But on this issue we're definitely on the same track.
I'll give you a bit of a break
so they don't necessarily think we finagled this
together. What you're saying is obviously a
position I would have been taking, because I know
how it affects the riding.
I can answer, maybe not in exact numbers, what Mr.
Comaskey was commenting on with regard to people not
being able to get on the train. We're talking about
five, six, or seven communities along that Bay
line heading toward Churchill; it's their only form of
transportation, in or out. Some of these communities
have an airport this big. Their only way in
and out, and it's only a couple of times a week, is
You have people in those
communities who need to get in and out for grocery
shopping or doctors' appointments, and if the trains
are filled with tourists, they can't
get on or they're climbing into baggage cars, or maybe
they're thrown alongside the moose that might have been hauled
on if somebody is taking it down the railway line.
That's the reality.
To suggest we should have accurate numbers— I'm
sure VIA has a fair idea of numbers. I would see
it as being largely those communities using it because
it's their only form of transportation, and air
transportation is quite
Beyond that, I know you're here
representing the municipalities throughout Canada. I
am aware that a number of the municipalities in the western
provinces, although they have road service more so than the remote
communities do, felt the loss of the rail
service, because we have an
I don't know if that has come into the discussions
with the municipalities, but has there been any
indication that with an aging population there
will be more usage of rail
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We haven't discussed it with
the FCM board, but it's certainly an interesting
point and we will take it into account.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: It's certainly come up in
some of the discussions I've had
with other people, and I was interested in knowing
whether it was something that had come up with them.
That's fine. Thank you.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thank you.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Mr. Bailey,
Mr. Roy Bailey (Souris—Moose Mountain, Ref.): Thank
you, Mr. Chairman.
We have had before this committee, Mr. Mayor, people from
CN, CP, VIA, consultants. The young people here
will probably get a realization of the old adage,
which was that the existence of Canada is a sin against
geography or a sin against nature and there's no
country in the world that has the unique transportation
problems we have. I think we have to be
You are not alone with transportation problems, but
I concur with what you say. My colleague
and I are about to lose— as I told this committee some
time ago, in two years they can come and take our
steel. They can run a brand-new line all the way from
Windsor to Montreal, and we'll give our steel to VIA
Rail, which would save them a lot. Our communities are
losing it because of rail line abandonment.
I'm really concerned with your group. You
answered the question by saying it had to be paying its
way. Now, if you study the history of
transportation in Canada, whether it's passenger train
or the highways, nothing ever pays its way. Let's get
For something to be a more successful crown
corporation— I think I have to argue with
that, Bill, for this reason. In Saskatchewan we have
attempted to have a bus line, Saskatchewan
Transportation Company, and even that is losing money
and has lost big money.
As for the point you made about roads and the
expenditure on roads, the federal government and the
Province of Saskatchewan have contributed, from the
fuel tax they have extracted, about 5% to
roads. So to say the people who travel our
highways aren't paying for them— Fifty percent of
every litre of gas that goes into my vehicle goes to
the roads, or should be
going to the roads, so there is a high tax on
I think it's incumbent upon your association not to
try to get around that terrific expenditure
the individual user of the road pays, because we do
Let me get back to this. As a representative of
your association, how do you expect to service all
the areas of Canada without billions and billions of dollars
coming from the federal government at this time?
I don't think it's possible.
I think the challenge facing this committee is that it
is going to have to look at
your problems, the problems my colleague mentioned
in northern areas, but if we're
going to live up to the dream of
Transport 2000— there won't be
enough money in Ottawa in the next 20 years
to make it realistic, and I think you would agree with
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Please don't misunderstand me.
When I said that the transportation system should
pay its way, that's not what I was saying. I was
talking about that high-speed rail line from Windsor to
Quebec City. It should be able to subsidize some of
the other routes.
There has to be government involvement and there
has to be a commitment by, I'll even go as far as
to say, other levels of government in order to
subsidize passenger rail service. I want to make
the correction, if that's the impression I left.
Mr. Roy Bailey: In your response to Mr.
Keyes, when Mr. Keyes asked you what you considered
successful or viable, you said one that's paying
its way. I understand what you mean. I don't see any
link in Canada paying
its way per se.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: No.
Mr. Roy Bailey: It doesn't even happen in
Let me get back to this. What does your organization
propose in the way of meeting all the demands that
have come before this committee? What do you propose
the federal government should do, or what Canada
should do, given the amount of money that would have to go
into this? Have you done any cost figures?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We haven't done it. As
Mr. McGregor said, we, as a level of government, would
be very willing to sit down with the other two orders
of government and talk about it. With due
respect, far too many times we're left out of the
process, and by the time we are asked to
participate, the decision has already been made. We
would like to be included, but it doesn't
mean to say we're ready to write a cheque.
You're absolutely right that the FCM has led the way
with the national infrastructure program.
We believe it was estimated at $20 billion
to fix the crumbling roads and
bridges right now. It's unfortunate there wasn't
renewal in the last budget, and we would urge the
committee to make mention of that in your report as
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank you, Mr.
I'm out of order here. With Mr. Casey's indulgence,
I'll go to Mr. Nault and then to Mr. Casey.
Mr. Bill Casey (Cumberland—Colchester, PC): That
will just be fine.
Mr. Robert D. Nault (Kenora—Rainy River, Lib.):
My question is very specific. On page 9 you say that
“FCM supports a legislative mandate for VIA that would
allow it the flexibility to borrow money, find private
investors, and build on its existing structure”.
Then you go on to say that “FCM cautions, however,
against the full privatization of VIA”.
Am I to take from this statement that you are not
opposed to privatization of certain lines; it's just
the whole privatization of VIA as we know it?
I ask that because, to be consistent,
you say they should be allowed to borrow money and
find private investors. Then at the bottom of that
paragraph, you say: “We all know
that no national passenger rail service in
the world is entirely self-financing”.
In essence, who
in their right mind would invest, unless we change the
I'm under the impression
that the position of FCM, and I just want to be clear
on this, is that you would be
willing to see some form of privatization; for example,
a tourist train going into northern Manitoba.
Certainly, there's still the issue of dealing with the
local passengers and their needs. That's not
incompatible with making sure that both work hand in
hand, or you can have two separate trains.
The point is, if I'm a business person and I think
I can make a good living on a small tourist train in
the summer up in northern Manitoba, why would you want
to be opposed to it, as a municipal leader in that
that as an example because when
someone asked whether you would allow someone to bid
on a private run in northern Manitoba, you said
“absolutely not”. I'm a little bit surprised. Being
a northerner myself, I know economic development is
something we're lacking in northern Ontario, as
we are in northern Manitoba.
I would like some
clarification about the position of FCM as opposed to
the position of the mayor of Thompson.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thank you for your question.
We are not in support of privatization.
Mr. Robert Nault: That's not what it says
in the brief.
I understand your point of view and you can speak as
an individual, but if you're speaking for the
organization, I want to know the position of the organization
representing almost 20 million
It says in the brief you are looking to
“find private investors and build on its existing
structure”, but “FCM cautions, however, against the full
privatization of VIA”.
It suggests you are in
favour of partial privatization in certain areas. Yes
Mr. Bill Comaskey: No. That's not what it means.
Private investment: we are in favour of investment
dollars in part of the corporation, but not in picking
off different markets and privatizing them,
because that could put the more remote lines such as the
Bay line into question. Then who would take over the Bay line?
Mr. Dan McGregor: What we're trying to do here,
Mr. Nault, is to express openness toward
public-private partnerships. Indeed, on some lines
it would be more viable than on others. But we want to
maintain the whole system as a
single, public sector corporation of some sort so that
the public interest in terms of cross-subsidies can be
Building, owing, operating, and transferring, for
example, as was done with
Confederation Bridge— it's our intent to express
openness to these kinds of public-private
models. We don't consider that privatization. We
consider it a joint venture or a public-private
partnership, whereby at the end of the day it would
still be owned by the public sector.
Mr. Robert Nault: I'm having a
really tough time with this, and I think maybe you should
go back and ask the board to clarify it for me.
I'm obviously misreading what your
presentation says. You can certainly
commercialize certain lines, as we have
commercialized airports, and we use them as an example.
They still belong to the federal government, but they
are commercialized and run locally
because local folks tend to want to do a little
more work as it relates to making it viable and having a
better understanding of it.
If we were to
commercialize certain runs and keep them under the VIA
corporation— Is that what you're suggesting? In
some instances it would allow a private individual to
purchase that particular train, have the equipment,
run on it, and keep the profits, quite frankly, if in
fact they were able to generate a tremendous amount of tourism
by marketing that particular area.
disagree with the presentation that's been made as it
relates to Thompson. They're not marketing that area
at all. VIA does a very poor job of that.
Specifically they're not marketing the whales and polar
bears. We're trying to
make it successful. That's the whole objective
of the committee.
I just want to be very clear what you're saying,
in case some big city mayor who belongs to FCM
comes to this committee and says he disagrees
with the presentation that was made by his own
organization, and that he is in favour of, for example,
commercializing the corridor.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Actually, I'm pleased to
meet you. You and I have corresponded. You have
seen letters from me on gasoline prices from time to
Mr. Robert Nault: Certainly.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thank you.
Mr. Robert Nault: I'm the guy you were talking
Mr. Bill Comaskey: You're the guy. I was
disappointed when you left that committee and went on to something
Mr. Robert Nault: Bigger and better things.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: From time to time
big city mayors will disagree with
FCM policy. It could be individually or
parochially, but as Mr. McGregor has explained,
our presentation is based on FCM policy. Although I
might have a disagreement with parts of it—I can get
parochial as well—it is the FCM's
position and we're in favour of options that can generate
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank you, Mr.
Mr. Casey, please.
Mr. Bill Casey: Thank you. I just wondered if the
federation has a vision for or an overall concept
of a rail passenger system in Canada. Coast
to coast, is there one vision you have?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I have to be careful that it's
an FCM response, that it's not Bill Comaskey's
response, because I have a vision that might
not be shared by the national board of directors.
Mr. Bill Casey: Actually, you brought up another
question. Before we go to the first question, has the
federation really spent a lot of time on this issue?
Do they have a committee that's researched it and
studied it and proposed costs and frameworks and
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We have not done an in-depth
study, but we do have the transportation committee.
A subcommittee is looking at it right
now. I sit on both committees.
We have struggled with it for quite a long time,
and it's not just in quick response to an opportunity to
present a brief to this House of Commons committee.
We have been working on this for years.
Mr. Bill Casey: Now about the vision thing.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I'm speaking on
behalf of every municipality that's a member of the
Federation of Canadian Municipalities and probably
every community across the country, and we believe
in this great vast country of ours there has
to be a national transportation policy. The vision
is that people can travel from coast to coast to coast.
When your colleague asked me what I considered
to be successful, if people are satisfied and are
comfortable with being able to get on a certain mode of
transportation—in most cases passenger rail—and
can travel from community to community, we would
consider that successful.
We don't have the resources to do an in-depth
study into costs and the type of mandate
this committee has been charged with. We don't have
those resources at FCM, but we have spent a lot
of time on it.
Mr. Bill Casey: Considering the government's focus
on deficit elimination, do you think there is an
acceptable level of contribution to passenger rail
service in Canada? Next year it's $170 million.
What's the acceptable level?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: No one knows. Canadians have
applauded the government's effort to
balance the budget. We believe governments
have become obsessed with balancing the budgets really
quickly, and now they're in a bit of a quandary because
they don't know what to do with the surplus.
Mr. Stan Keyes: What surplus?
Mr. Murray Calder: What surplus? Don't believe
everything you read.
Mr. Stan Keyes: There was.
Mr. Lee Morrison: You blew it already.
Mr. Stan Keyes: On students, you mean?
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Order, order.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Also, when
VIA Rail states in their annual report that they are now
subsidized by something like only 56% or 44%, whatever
it is, they are applauding themselves for bringing down
the taxpayer's cost of doing business. We don't
see it as an accomplishment.
Passenger rail services need to be subsidized if
we're going to provide it from coast to coast. The
federal government has reached its goal in a much
shorter period of time than it anticipated, and
that's on the backs of
people who are deprived of the opportunity to travel
from community to community on passenger rail service
and on other services as well.
We don't disagree that it's important to balance
the budget, but don't cut to the bone. In the case of
VIA Rail, we believe that's one of the things that have
Mr. Bill Casey: The federation believes there
should be a national coast-to-coast-to-coast passenger
rail system and the feds should participate in that
I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but is
Mr. Bill Comaskey: We know there are parts of
the country in which VIA is not providing a service, and
we're not suggesting VIA has to include that
in their overall business plan. Where
there is now an expectation and a
mandate to provide passenger rail service, FCM
expects it to be delivered and believes it should be
it should be standardized, and that there should not be
acceptable or even good service in central Canada while
there is inferior, very mediocre service in northern
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Thank you very
much, Mr. Casey.
We've completed our first round. Ms. Desjarlais
would like to ask one final question to the witnesses.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: You commented on VIA's
marketing and that it isn't necessarily up to par. I
don't think you'd get any disagreement. I know I've
met with VIA and concerns have been raised.
You made the
comment that with the subsidies dropping, the service
isn't there. My understanding is they can't
provide those cars because they don't have enough cars.
If more money can be made on a run
from Alberta to B.C.—I won't pick
names—even if there were an extra car, it would be
pulled from there and put on another train. There were
comments after the Biggar crash that it was going to be
even worse because we'd probably lose another car that
would be moved somewhere else.
Is it your impression that there would be greater
use if more cars were available?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: I have it from both the
operators and the consumer groups that if cars
were available, they could be filled on these trips. So
the answer is absolutely.
Ms. Bev Desjarlais: It probably seems not an
overly great shock to people with respect to the train, but
it also happens to the northern community with planes. If
they need an extra plane and something happens so they
can't do the Calgary-to-Winnipeg run, they'll take the
Thompson plane and it will go. You'll just wait the extra
hours in Winnipeg. It's the old argument that just
because you're outside the perimeter, you never get
treated the same. Quite frankly, that's the way the
west feels and probably the far east coast feels about
the regard for providing adequate transportation.
That's my comment. Thank you.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Okay,
thank you, Ms. Desjarlais.
Just before wrapping up, there was an unusual coincidence
today. A colleague of ours very recently was in
Winnipeg. He flew to The Pas and took the train to
Churchill via Thompson, and his remark was that there
weren't many people on the train. But it took what he
thought was an
unusual way. It goes into Thompson a couple
of times, in and out again, and then on to Churchill.
He said he saw some of the same people on the
I don't understand how it works. Could you
describe how the service from The Pas through to Thompson
through to Churchill works?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: There's actually a spur line
back into Thompson, off the line. That's why it might
seem as if you were doing a back-up and then going ahead.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): Okay, now
it's totally clear. I had to ask it. It was so
coincidental. I spoke to him just today, and he talked
about the service. So it's one of these historical
things, I guess, is it?
Mr. Bill Comaskey: It should be a normal event.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): I see.
I would like to thank you, Mr. Comaskey and
colleagues, for coming here today and for a
well-presented brief. We thank you for taking the time
to come here to Ottawa to meet with us to present your
views. You can be sure they'll be part of our
Mr. Dan McGregor: Thank you.
Mr. Bill Comaskey: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The Vice-Chairman (Mr. Roy Cullen): The meeting is