I’ve been seeing a lot of the new Via Rail campaign of late, “Why don’t you take the train?” In it, actors depict people following habits that either appear rude or out of line with what would be expected behaviour. Their friends ask them why they do it.  The response to the friend is always, “why don’t you take the train?”

In an ironic twist, it is VIA – not its passengers who need to re-think their habits.

Creative re-thinking could make train travel as alluring as ever and put VIA on the right track.

The back track

The Toronto-Montreal VIA route makes up over half of VIA’s revenues. As much as passenger numbers and revenues have held steady over the past 5 years, on-time performance has slipped from a mediocre 84% to a truly dismal 71%, undermining VIA’s efforts at promoting and improving the quality of train travel. My own experience with train travel suggests even worse figures.

VIA is facing some significant barriers to making taking the train a preferred option, which would lead the way to increased revenues. If VIA could increase the scheduling options and decrease the commute time for passengers, the premise is that they would be able compete favourably with air travel.

The one-track solution

Much has been made of the archaic trains available to us in North America as compared to those in Europe and Asia. Several proposals have been put forth to bring high-speed rail and modern trains here. There are two main factors at play preventing the high-speed rail effort:

  • Cost: The price tag for high speed rails in the Montreal- Toronto  corridor is estimated to be around $10B for the Montreal-Toronto route
  • Air travel lobbying: Bombardier, Air Canada and other airlines lobby the governments heavily to protect the Montreal-Toronto corridor.

High speed rail lines are expensive to build and would still mean that passenger traffic would be treated as second-class.

Taking a different track

A more cost-effective, pragmatic solution to high-speed rail is a dedicated track for passenger traffic. The dedicated track could be installed along the same corridor to service the existing trains at a cost of $4B.

This line would allow trains to travel uninterrupted at speeds up to 175 km/h. Current limits on shared tracks are limited to 105 km/h. Increased speed could cut travel time by over a third, making the trip from Montreal to Toronto travel 2 hrs, 48 mins – very competitive with air travel.

Having a dedicated track would also allow for almost triple the number of passenger trains, which would enable VIA to address the additional issue of a lack of convenient travel times.

Tripling the number of passengers, even while holding fares steady, would allow VIA to shed its dependence on annual government subsidies of almost $400MM and achieve payback on the track investments in relatively short order, according to a recent address by CEO by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano.

And with carbon tax regulations taking shape, VIA could well find itself further able to fund its investments by trading carbon credits with its less environmentally-friendly competitors.

Advertising – the caboose not the engine

Brands, like VIA, are often tempted to try to advertise their way out of growth challenges without addressing root causes of stagnation. If we are to truly change our habits of driving or flying between cities as VIA’s ads suggest, VIA needs to make train travel viable, attractive alternative. The campaign slogan would stay the same but the rationale for not taking the train would all but disappear.