The station-less future that VIA could be
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Nov 30, 2012  |  Vote 0    0

The station-less future that VIA could be

St. Marys Journal Argus

St. Marys Journal Argus editorial

An opportunity last week to see the inside of the Andrews Jewellery building (to take a photo to help promote the Rotary Club’s annual historic St. Marys calendar) led to contemplations about what type of enterprise might potentially move into the street-level retail section of the building and maintain its impeccably-preserved, 19th century interior. One suggestion was the Town of St. Marys tourism department.

It’s a poorly-kept secret that the Town is considering moving the department out of its current VIA Rail station home. That, combined with the slashing of a $41 million federal government subsidy to VIA and the Crown corporation’s subsequent service cuts that came into effect in October, certainly leaves open the question about what will become of VIA Rail in St. Marys?

In its current format, it seems VIA – built on a 20th century model of well-to-do travellers taking the time for several days away by train – will go the way of the 19th century, small-town Ontario jewellery store. If the James Street North station remains intact 20 years from now, it will probably be like the Andrews building’s interior: an important element of the Stonetown’s architectural past, with people wondering who might buy it and put it to a new use while maintaining its façade.

And VIA’s current model isn’t only on the way out in St. Marys. Across the country, VIA clings to a similar model as that employed in the Toronto-Kitchener-Sarnia corridor: outdated speed of travel; absence of low-cost passenger options; infrequent trains; unnecessary stops in towns and cities people don’t want to see.

The reasons for these inadequacies pretty much boil down to money (VIA doesn’t get much), which speaks to the failure of proponents of inter-city mass transit to convince politicians it should be a priority.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. In today’s Ontario, people travel for work more often than for pleasure. Most of them want to travel to Toronto as quickly as possible, conduct their business, and then return to the sanity of their home towns. It’s a reality that GO Transit, unlike VIA, has recognized.

So make this happen. High-speed rail technology would, of course, be best, but this takes significant investments of cash. Instead, start by offering higher-frequency, smaller-capacity trains originating from a variety of centres and going directly to Toronto. Some from London direct to Toronto, some direct from Kitchener, and some that originate in St. Marys, stop in Stratford, and head directly to Toronto.

More importantly, however, eliminate all the non-train elements of VIA Rail travel that were built around the old train-as-vacation-experience model. Get rid of ticket agents, baggage handlers, and on-board conductors who check tickets.

Business commuters all have cellphones, and they’re perfectly capable (and, in most cases, prefer a high-tech model of commerce) of buying a ticket online and scanning their phone across a camera as they mount the train.

If this model proves more convenient and more affordable, ridership should rise in a manner directly proportional to the increase in traffic snarls on Highway 401. Eventually, those increased (online) ticket sales might even pay for a high-speed upgrade.

One interesting thing about such a model is that stations like our James Street building become entirely unnecessary. But if that’s the price we pay to keep (and enhance) the trains running to Toronto, that’s fine.


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