Take The Train... Please

Today's complaining on the CBC's Radio One program Ontario Today was about the cancellation of train service to northern Ontario.  This one particular line that was being cancelled cost $400 more per passenger than it recovered in revenues, to the tune of $24 million a year  (edit: according to the CBC website, it was the Northander, serving Toronto and Cochrane and points in between).

One caller called in to complain, hey, the British have committed $9 billion over five years to improve their rail services, why can't we do that?  And the in-studio guest was saying yeah, European and US governments are investing in rail and we're backing away from it and he doesn't understand why.

First of all, hello! The European situation is vastly different.  Europe as a whole has a population density that North America can only dream of -- 700 million people in an area only three times the size of Quebec.  You can't swing a cat in Europe without hitting a population center.

That leads to two consequences that drives rail in Europe:
  • There are way more people in any given area.  That gives you a far larger supply of potential passengers.
  • You don't have to carry them as far, because you can't physically go very far (when compared to Canada in general, and Northern Ontario in particular).  
This gives the conclusion that either
  • because of the population density, you'll have many more people interested in a given length of track -- rail is far more likely to be run profitably; and
  • your tax base is much deeper in any given area meaning the per-taxpayer costs of subsidizing the same rail line is much lower.
You can't compare European rail with Canadian rail.  It just isn't anywhere near the same proposition.

Second, even the States, where the in-studio guest claimed Obama was pushing rail investment, the guest neglected to add the important qualifier: between population centers.  The US land mass is slightly smaller than Canada, but since their population is ten times ours, they can approach the population densities in some areas to make rail a real possibility.

The only place in Canada where rail is growing, in terms of investment and ridership, is the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor -- in other words, in the only place in the country where population densities approach European values.  (Plus the spur to Ottawa.)

See how that works?

But getting back to the subject of subsidizing rail use -- the above-mentioned rail service costs the government $400 to move a person from one end to another of the line.

Where's the other number?  What's the cost to the government to supply roads and infrastructure in order for a private car to deliver a person from one end to the other of the now-abandoned rail line?

Government subsidies of this kind of rail service amount to a subsidy of a way of life, and frankly people are going to have to consider if we as a society can afford to continue those subsidies.  People seem to want all the amenities that come from a population density, but want to live out in the undeveloped northern areas -- and want other tax payers to pay the cost of the difference.