Going Forward: Transport 2000 Passenger Transportation Policy
Canada’s transportation sector is at an impasse. Bankrupt airlines, an overstretched road network, bus and train services that fail to serve most Canadians, environmental destruction and excess fuel consumption – these are just a few of the problems that have been accumulating for years and for which lasting solutions have yet to be found. Transport 2000 calls on federal, provincial, and local governments, together with the private sector, to develop a sustainable, efficient, cost-effective, affordable, and environmentally sound transportation network. In our policy document, summarized here, we address some of the fundamental failings of Canadian transport policy and propose steps towards a sustainable future.
Our policy aims to provide better transportation options to more Canadians while reducing congestion, pollution, and energy consumption. In working towards the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol, transportation is one of the sectors where the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be realized. We can achieve these goals by substantially increasing the proportion of trips taken with common carriers instead of private cars. Thus we can meet Canada’s transportation needs at the lowest total cost to society and the environment.
1. Build a network of interconnected transportation services
People do leave their cars at home and use public transportation if it is reliable, convenient, comfortable, and affordable. Making it so requires creating a true intermodal transportation network. Both passengers and carriers would benefit, with better service for passengers and better ridership for carriers. (The private car, not any common carrier, is by far the most significant competition in most transportation markets.) Public policy incentives are needed to encourage integration, respecting industry expertise while ensuring that the needs of passengers are met.
The most important interconnection measure is frequent, convenient rail service to major city airports. Planning for such links is currently underway in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa and should be extended to other large cities. But downtown connections are not the only need. Wherever possible, intercity and local trains, buses, and ferries should also serve the airport.
Not just airports, but other transportation terminals should be shared between carriers and modes. Secure, automatic baggage transfer, joint ticketing, coordinated schedules, and clear information for passengers are also required. These measures are essential steps toward making public transportation into an attractive, convenient option, at little risk to any carrier’s market share.
2. Support all modes of transportation – road, rail, air, and water
Each mode of transportation has advantages and disadvantages; we need to support all modes to create a balanced, efficient network.
The great majority of intercity trips in Canada are made by private car. Of the remainder, over half are made by air. Not surprisingly, road and air are the modes which have received by far the most public funding in recent decades and which also have the worst congestion problems. The more investment is made in facilities for a given mode, the easier it is to use that mode and the more popular it becomes.
Passenger rail has received very little investment in the past fifty years, and as a result has become vestigial in most parts of North America. And yet in those markets where good service has been maintained, trains are more popular than ever. Rail, the backbone of public transportation, is the only mode with the potential to draw people away from their cars in large numbers. It is also the most efficient and environmentally friendly mode of motorized transportation ever developed. Providing a viable rail alternative is often the most effective way of improving traffic flow on congested highways.
High-speed train services should be developed for trips of under 800 km between major centres, with the aim of reducing highway use and environmentally harmful short-haul air traffic and airport congestion. Much of the opposition to the proposed creation of high-speed service in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor comes not from concerns that such a project would become a white elephant, but rather from the fear of other carriers that the new trains would take away much of their business, as has been the experience in other countries. Thus rail development policy may have to include a role for existing carriers, perhaps as partners in a rail operating company, or as feeder services whose ridership is increased by the existence of high-quality rail service.
The particular role of bus transportation is to offer basic low-cost service to the greatest number of destinations possible. In many areas it is the only practical means of public transportation. Bus services could become more attractive if they were scheduled and marketed as part of a well-connected intermodal network. Buses on their own, however, have never shown significant potential to attract car drivers to public transportation.
Ferry services in Eastern and Western Canada are another essential part of a balanced transportation network that must not be allowed to decline for lack of investment.
3. Serve Canadians in all parts of the country
The Canadian transportation market is complicated by our vast distances and uneven population distribution. Lucrative markets exist in the corridors linking major cities, while at the other extreme, small communities are spread across the 10 million km2 extent of the country. Without adequate transportation services, these communities cannot survive.
Currently, special subsidies are offered to certain carriers to maintain unprofitable services to small communities. We propose that all such subsidies be discontinued. Instead, a fund should be created that can be drawn on by any transportation operator of any mode, in the public or private sector, which offers services to remote communities. Communities would thus no longer be dependent on a single subsidized transportation service and different operators would have the opportunity to consider serving these markets. A similar fund exists for the provision of telephone service, mandated by the federal Telecommunications Act.
The public-private partnership in transportation
Governments have an important role to play in resolving transportation problems and creating an environment in which private carriers can thrive while offering the best possible service to the public. A “level playing field” in the transportation sector cannot arise through market forces alone, because of the link between investment in infrastructure and the viability of services using that infrastructure, and because of the highly uneven geographical distribution of demand.
Transportation has always functioned as a public-private partnership, but the terms of the partnership are arbitrary, mostly determined by historical accident. Let us therefore work towards a clearer partnership: a funding formula for services to small communities, as described above; a separation of the contradictory roles of Air Canada, as public service and as a competitive private carrier; public infrastructure funding for passenger rail development, just as we currently fund roads; and clarification of the status of VIA Rail.
VIA Rail was created over 25 years ago as an emergency measure to resolve the 1970s crisis in passenger rail. VIA cannot make its own decisions on which routes to serve nor can it make any investment without Treasury Board approval. A VIA Rail Act should be enacted without delay, to correct these structural problems and give VIA a clear mandate to provide service wherever sufficient demand exists and the means to do so. Despite the difficulties of operating over declining rail infrastructure and being subject to Treasury Board veto, VIA has done an excellent job – witness VIA’s many awards from the tourism industry and its declining subsidy (in real terms) since 1990. Franchising train routes will hardly improve rail service; but if the rail infrastructure investment problem is solved, VIA’s near-monopoly will be unnecessary and opportunities for private-sector participation may arise.
Sometimes travel isn’t necessary after all
We must not forget that mobility in itself is not a virtue and that most trips are taken for purposes other than simply moving from one place to another. Transportation demand management (TDM) strategies – which include promoting teleconferencing as an alternative to business travel – can ease the burden of transportation without sacrificing economic opportunities or connections between people.
Transport 2000 believes that we have a need for a better public transportation system in Canada and the means and opportunity to create one. By removing obstacles to the use of public transportation and improving connections between different modes and carriers; by making investments balanced across all modes of transportation, instead of favoring highways and airports; by ensuring that all parts of the country are reliably and sustainably connected by the transportation system – by these means we can provide ourselves with the best possible transport while reducing personal stress, environmental damage, and, over time, the overall cost of transportation to society. We urge the federal and provincial governments to adopt sustainable transport policies now and to implement them in partnership with the transport industry.