Via Rail CEO says demographics makes it right time to boost passenger service

TORONTO – The chief executive of Via Rail says it’s a good time to expand passenger rail service in Canada by building dedicated tracks and increasing the frequency of its trains.

“There is a renaissance and an emergence of a train culture in Canada,” Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said at a luncheon held in Toronto by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

Demographic factors such as the pro-environment values of millennials, the growing number of seniors with mobility issues and an influx of immigrants from countries where train culture is prevalent make it a good time to boost passenger service, Desjardins-Siciliano said Thursday.

“Young Canadians — millennials — have a green heart,” he said.

Via Rail hopes to raise $3 billion from private investors in order to build dedicated passenger tracks between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The company says the long-standing practice of sharing infrastructure with freight trains has hurt its ridership, which has been eroding in recent years.

The number of Via Rail passengers declined to 3.8 million last year from 4.1 million in 2010, according to the company’s financial statements that included a $317.1-million operating loss last year.

Desjardins-Siciliano says that by doubling the frequency of service along that route, Via could triple its ridership.

“If you add frequency, you add availability and convenience — and you automatically add ridership,” Desjardins-Siciliano said. “But if we don’t own the tracks we can’t add frequency as we wish.”

Higher ridership would boost the line’s profitability and could help subsidize other, less profitable routes, ultimately reducing the extent to which taxpayers foot the railway’s bills, he said.

But Desjardins-Siciliano said he doesn’t foresee the company going private.

“I think Via Rail will always be a public service company, because we’re servicing Canada, and you’ll always have routes that can’t sustain themselves,” he said during an interview following his speech.

Desjardins-Siciliano also brushed off the notion of Via Rail implementing high-speed rail lines, such as those in Europe and Japan, calling the development of such lines uneconomical.

High-frequency service, such as the kind currently being proposed by Via Rail, delivers “70 per cent of the benefit for 30 per cent of the cost” of high-speed service, he said.

“It’s a more profitable model.”

The Ontario government is planning to build a high-speed rail line connecting Windsor, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto.

The province intends to invest $29 billion into transit and transportation infrastructure projects over the next decade.

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