David Collenette is a familiar face in Canadian politics. Elected to the House of Commons in 1974, ‘80, ‘93, ‘97 and 2000, he was appointed Transport Minister in June 1997, which places him in charge of VIA Rail Canada, the nation's government owned long-distance rail passenger service.
Collenette also heads five Crown Corporations (government-owned): Canada Mortgage and Housing; Canada Post; the Royal Canadian Mint; Canada Lands Company Limited; and Queens Quay West Land Corporation.
Born in London, England, Collenette made it clear in an interview he likes railroads. He recalled "the great Gresley locomotives, the A3s and the A4s..." of his youth.
A Trains subscriber, Collenette takes several train trips a year, traveling in both first and economy class. In addition, he frequently rides the trains between Ottawa, Canada's capital, and Montreal, because of the convenience.
VIA has faced funding woes similar to Amtrak since it took over passenger trains in 1976. Its operating subsidy has been steadily reduced.
Nevertheless, said Collenette, "Passenger rail must be enhanced in Canada." Already during his tenure new engines and cars have been purchased, track and stations upgraded, and routes added.
His biggest goal today is getting high-speed service into the busy Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor; bounded by Windsor, Ont., on the west and Quebec City, Que., on the east. A recent $2 billion plan put forth by Collenette and VIA would move all freight onto the corridor's Canadian National line, and 150-mph passenger trains onto Canadian Pacific "...so we can have the kind of Acela-type approach that you've got on the East Coast of the U.S."
Collenette is investigating the availablity of private funding for the high-speed service. "I'd like for VIA to have the ability to go out and borrow on the open market," he says. "That's the way we can get new money into the system."
Also on Collenette's wish list for the corridor are more non-stop Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto trains, along with local service for other communities. Long-term, he wants a new station for Windsor, with trains that go to Detroit, via CP and the Detroit River tube.
"I also want to see more trains on the Toronto-Niagara Falls run to relieve congestion," he said.
Once Windsor-Quebec City is done, Collenette said his focus will turn to the Calgary-Edmonton, Alta., market: "You've got two big cities growing; you've got sprawl and clogged highways." Smaller city pairs like Regina and Saskatoon, Sask., however, will likely get little or no additional rail passenger service.
Collenette said he'd like to partner with Amtrak for a second train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. "I've talked to the B.C. government about that."
That extra train can only happen, though, if the U.S. passenger carrier continues to exist. "I would hope that the U.S. does not abandon Amtrak," Collenette said. "I would hope they would follow the kind of model we're adopting here, which is to reinvest in passenger rail. You keep it as a national rail corporation, that is subsidized, that provides an alternative mode of travel."
While emphasizing, "Passenger rail has to be subsidized, " he also said, "VIA can't restore services, or take on new services unless it can make a profit. Those are the Treasury Board rules."
Collenette is particularly interested in restoring service from Toronto to the Ontario cities of Barrie and Peterborough, bucking the trend set by his predecessors. The Barrie service, he thinks, could be operated by GO Transit.
In the east, he'd like the Atlantic Limited restored through northern Maine.
"How practical that would be I don't know, but you never know. If we can get on a roll with resurrecting the passenger service it's not inconceivable. I think what's more likely is that you'll have a second train on the existing line in the short run if the market is there, especially in the summer."
Collenette recognizes the need to serve remote communities as well as provide tourist routes. He'd like the Canadian restored to the scenic CP route, while other trains serve isolated communities on the CN line.
"I think the demand would be there, certainly in the summer, to go back to two transcontinental trains, one on the southern route through Calgary, and another one on the northern route through Edmonton."
Collenette talkes a lot about using VIA to reduce traffic congestion, and doesn't believe the carrier's fare are too high. To those who would say that VIA's cheapest fare is still more than the cost of gasoline for a car, the counters:
"What do you want to pay? A dollar? You're paying a premium for sitting in a train, having a drink, reading, without any hassle. You're paying a premium for quality service. The analogy with taking the train is hiring a limo with a chauffeur. That's really what you've got."
Freight is part of Collenette's portfolio, too, and the issues that beset him here are predictable: capital cost allowances, fuel taxes, and property taxes. "I think that as a government policy we need to move more toward modal neutrality so there's a level playing field.
"The congestion has become so acute now between Montreal and Detroit [especially through Toronto], that we need to encourage intermodal shift. CN and CP are running out of capacity to deal with that. So I think we should be making investments to help freight rail in the corridor." These would include track, signalling, and grade-separations.
Collenette sees the irony in truckers stuck in traffic james. "And now CN and CP are actually delivering just-in-time goods," Collenette said. But, he was careful to add, "This is not an anti-trucking stance, because some owners of the big trucking companies have talked to me about it.
"You're never going to be able to do without trucks. They're an essential transportation component."
Highway congestion is also a problem through the Rocky Mountains between Edmonton and Calgary to Vancouver, he noted.
Collenette is deeply concerned about the transportation options that are foreclosed when lines are abandoned. Of note to him is the potential abandonment of remaining portions of the Canada Southern.
"Now the economic need [for the line] could come back. This is the trouble with rail. Once you've torn it up and you get biking trails and all the rest it becomes pretty difficult to restore the service, " he said. "Legally [I have} no power to stop them from abandoning that track after they go through a certain process.
"The question is, do you preserve the rail line for the sake of preserving it if there's no economic need for it."
C2003 Peter D.A. Warwick
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