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Why GO Transit is held hostage by CN

Track ownership means commuters play second fiddle to railway companies


Wednesday, May 18, 2005 Page A14

To the passengers who ride its green and white trains each morning, GO Transit may seem to be a separate and distinct commuter rail system.

It is anything but.

While GO Transit, a Crown agency under the provincial Ministry of Transportation, owns the trains it uses to make its 179 trips carrying 150,000 passengers each weekday, Canada’s two national railways own most of the tracks and provide the crews that run the commuter service.

“CN and CP essentially own the rail, and we lease track time. And we also contract out to them siding services, and they do all the dispatch,” GO Transit vice-chairman Gordon Chong said.

That means a national strike by 1,700 engineers who work for Canadian National also affects the people who take the GO train to work. Commuters are the unlikely victims of the system’s peculiar structure, Mr. Chong said.

“We’re forced to contract out, because they own the rail and run the trains. By virtue of the laws of Canada, and by virtue of what I consider a virtual monopoly by the railway companies, we are held hostage to the problems that CN and CP encounter,” Mr. Chong said.

Ninety five of CN’s engineers drive GO trains on six lines leased by GO Transit. The seventh, Milton, line runs on CP track and is not part of the latest dispute.

GO Transit is not alone in feeling the pinch when a national railway has union conflicts. Any commuter rail service in Canada, whether it be the Westcoast Express in Vancouver or the Agence Metropolitaine de Montreal, will not be able to run trains on CN lines during a strike of CN engineers, Mr. Chong said.

In fact, GO is a spectator to the negotiations between CN and the engineers. “We have no leverage. The CN keeps us abreast of what is happening, and every time there is a threat of a labour dispute, we make preparations for that eventuality, and if it happens we deal with it,” Mr. Chong said.

Its relationship with the national railways introduces another oddity for GO Transit.

Since Confederation, the interprovincial rail lines that GO and other commuter systems run on have been a federal responsibility. That means that any legislation needed to end a strike — as last happened in 1995 — would have to be passed by Parliament, even though GO is a provincially owned service.

While an election call is looking less likely, if Parliament were dissolved and a GO strike occurred, “you’d be up the creek, because without Parliament, [workers] can’t be ordered back,” Mr. Chong said.

That means that not only must GO depend on the national railways to run its trains, it is also financially hostage to them, he said.

He added that GO Transit is charged access fees by the railways to use lines that GO paid for in the first place from capital funds that came from all three levels of government.

“Any capital improvement that we do to the rail, they own,” Mr. Chong said. “It doesn’t matter what capital improvements we put in, they own them. We’ve put in hundreds of millions.”

GO, for instance, is currently investing $140-million to upgrade the Lakeshore line west of Toronto.

“That’s money that GO has paid, subsidized through the three levels of government, which is Canadian taxpayers’ money. CN owns it, and we have to pay access fees.”

Mr. Chong said there is legislation on a parliamentary order paper that “would force CN and CP to reflect the dollar value of the capital improvement that we have put into it in their access fees… . There are a lot of things that could be good for commuter rail that could conceivably die if there were an election call.”