On track for help
Published: July 29, 2008
Source: The Examiner
Trains move people, and they move freight.
Outside of high population areas, passenger trains tend to run in the red. However, they are better for the environment than automobiles and reduce traffic congestion on roads, so governments operate and subsidize them.
Freight lines make money, particularly in high population areas but also on less busy routes. As a result they are still owned by private companies and operate without government subsidies.
Those basic differences between two sides of the same transportation system are important to keep in mind now that the federal and provincial governments have agreed on a $12.4 billion infrastructure program for Ontario.
Locally, much of the interest in last week's announcement of a Building Canada Fund deal between Ottawa and Queen's Park centred on the proposed return of a Toronto to Peterborough passenger train.
The "new" news was that each partner has committed to set aside $150 million for track upgrades and new locomotives and passenger cars. However, final approval is still conditional. A study to determine how many people would likely ride the train and the actual up-front and annual operating costs is to be complete by next March. It will have to show train service is viable.
That position is not substantially different from where the two sides sat several months ago when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced federal funding for a train in his 2008-09 budget. Ottawa, through Flaherty, still says the study results will be positive and a train is coming. Ontario is still saying wait and see, but has now put a number to its potential contribution -$150 million.
Earmarking funds is step toward the pro-train camp, but Ontario still isn't showing the unconditional enthusiasm of Flaherty or fellow MP Dean Del Mastro.
The wait-and-see attitude toward passenger service is prudent.
However, there is a second consideration. That track that would have to be upgraded for a commuter train that now exists only in the minds of ardent supporters is owned by a private company, CP Rail. It is being used every day by very real freight trains.
But it is not used very efficiently. In some places the condition and alignment of the track restrict speeds to as low as 15 km-hour. Freight lines in other parts of the province face similar problems.
The dozen or so rail freight companies that use those lines say they could be upgraded province-wide to handle "fast freight" at a cost of $220 million. The bill for the Toronto- Peterborough line is estimated at $22 million.
The Building Canada Fund allows for government contributions to privately owned infrastructure. The rail companies are asking to get in on a three-way split: $73.3 million each from the companies, Ottawa and Queen's Park. That's the same deal being offered to municipalities for transit projects.
The argument for public investment in freight lines is solid. A study released last September by the U. S. Department of Transportation and the National Waterways Foundation compared the public impact of investment in waterways, roads and rail lines to move freight. It showed that on average, freight trains can move 2.7 times as much material as transport trucks using the same amount of fuel.
In terms of air pollution, the two modes produce almost identical amounts of hydrocarbons and particulates. However, transport trucks pour out more than double the amount of carbon monoxide and 10 per cent more nitrogen oxides to move the same loads.
Trains run on rails and trucks on roads. Ontario taxpayers will spend $1.5 billion this year building and improving roads. The rail companies are asking for a $73.3 million contribution spread over several years toward a more efficient, greener transport system that also reduces road congestion.
And on the Toronto to Peterborough line, a private-sector contribution would reduce taxpayers' cost of an upgrade for passenger service.
Even if local passenger train service doesn't prove to be viable in the near future, public investment in the freight deserves serious consideration.