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Only a money train can help transit

Joseph Hall

When you’re attempting to sneak something past people, you shouldn’t try to use a train.

Yet that’s what federal Transport Minister David Collenette seemed intent on doing recently when, with much fanfare, he announced a plan to integrate VIA Rail and GO Transit train services in and around the GTA.

The plan, he said, would add six VIA trains and 1,000 extra seats to commuter lines into Union Station.

It would, Collenette boasted, mean more trains and seats, better schedules and integrated ticket purchasing for the 40 million passengers who use GO every year.

But that, says GO managing director Gary McNeil, is mostly nonsense.

“Collenette is making this out as if it’s a great announcement when what we really need is tons of money and the senior governments are avoiding that fact,” McNeil says.

“This announcement is really a small thing. But by making these little announcements, it gives the public the impression that they’re doing these great things when they’re not.”

All together, Collenette’s proposals might look impressive.

But taken one at a time, they reveal themselves to be uncertain or insignificant.

Take, for example, the promise of 1,000 new commuter seats.

To put this number into perspective, that’s half of a GO train’s worth of new seats every day in a 156-train system.

Worse still, none of those seats would be available during the rush-hour periods, which, frankly, are the only time they’d really be needed.

“From 7:15 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. there’s no track capacity,” McNeil explains, adding there’s a similar crunch during the evening rush.

“So those new trains are going to be coming in at the fringes of the peak hours - at best.”

As for the six new “peak period” trains that Collenette promises for the GTA and surrounding area, McNeil is still scratching his head on that one.

Informed by Collenette of his intentions, McNeil had some cautions for the minister.

Sure, McNeil said, the trains may be available by using some of the 139 used carriages the federal government recently purchased from Britain. Getting track time around Toronto to run them on, however, would be far from a sure thing.

GO itself is at perpetual loggerheads over track time with Canadian National, which owns most of the lines running towards Union Station.

And VIA may not fare much better, McNeil says. “Theoretically if there are some track windows open out there which CN would let them run in - and we can get them into Union Station - then we’ll welcome the trains,” he said. “But he (Collenette) kind of made the announcement as if it’s a fait accompli, but there’s still some, shall we say, `details’ to be worked out.”

In addition, VIA’s six new “commuter” trains, promised for this October, would serve Oshawa, Hamilton and Kitchener as mere addenda to scheduled services run on to, or in from, Montreal and Windsor.

There is little doubt, McNeil says, that GTA commuters would assume a distinct, second-class status for the VIA staff planning and scheduling the more distant and lucrative runs.

Finally, McNeil says, VIA is the wrong agency to fulfil Collenette’s pledge to try to reopen commuter lines to Barrie and Peterborough.

He says VIA could save half to two-thirds the cost of the Barrie run by contracting it out to GO, which already runs trains up to Bradford.

In the end, he says, a VIA train carries 200 people and a GO train, 2,000.

“So this doesn’t even begin to scrape the top of the icing off the cake in terms of tackling our problems.

“But he (Collenette) has control of the VIA budget and can do this, where it would be much more difficult for him to get real federal funding for transit passed through cabinet.”

And that, McNeil says, is what GO really needs from Ottawa - a money train.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at 416-869-4390 or e-mail at