Fewer people are using VIA Rail, more trains are behind schedule, and the Crown corporation continues to bleed money by the millions: that’s what Canada’s Auditor General found when he took a close look at the passenger service this spring.
In 2014 VIA had revenues of $280 million, but spent $597 million in operating costs, plus another $82 million in capital projects (putting down tracks, etc.). That works out to a loss of $399 million, all of it covered by the government.
So what did taxpayers get for their money?
Well, an economy ticket for a four-day trip from Vancouver to Toronto is roughly $500, but the true cost is $1,100, with the government chipping in the difference of $600. Even with government subsidies of $55 million for the Vancouver-Toronto route, VIA Rail can’t compete on speed or price. In comparison an economy ticket for a flight on WestJet for the same route can be had for $300 and will take five hours. A bus ticket for a three-day Vancouver-Toronto trip is as little as $250.
Government intrusion into the marketplace has left us with a business that is slower, more expensive, and costs hundreds of millions of Canadian tax dollars each year. Why, then, does VIA Rail still exist? Because every time they cut service on unprofitable routes, ticket buyers – those who get the bulk of their ticket price paid for by taxpayers – protest. And these squeaky wheels continue to get greased.
What’s the takeaway for us? Let’s not be that sort of squeaky wheel.
We can make use of VIA’s service for as long as they exists – we don’t need to feel guilty about taking advantage of their subsidized ticket prices. Why? Because so long as their trains are going to keep running whether profitable or not, our ticket purchases will amount to a small decrease in VIA’s overall losses. However, if VIA proposes cutting a money-losing route – even our favorite route – then we must not squeak! It’s one thing to make use of wasteful government services, and quite another to demand the government continue providing these services. On what biblical basis can we argue that others should be required to subsidize our scenic train trips?
SOURCES: VIA Rail Canada Annual Report 2014; 2016 Spring Reports of the Auditor General of Canada: Via Rail Canada Inc. – Special Examination Report – 2016