Via Rail Debacle Shows Demand for Affordable Transit

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Via Rail Debacle Shows Demand for Affordable Transit

When public transit options are offered, young people will enthusiastically use them.

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Via Rail, Canada’s national passenger train service, capped the sale of promotional youth passes amid high demand, leaving numerous young Canadians angry and frustrated. Photo from Via.ca

A week ago, VIA Rail announced that they were offering Canada 150 Youth passes for unlimited travel across the country the month of July. These passes, created in tandem with the ongoing Canada 150 festivities, were meant to give youth, ages 12-25, the ability to travel on any of VIA Rail’s routes for $150.

Within minutes, the VIA Rail website crashed, causing the Crown corporation to suspend sales of the pass temporarily. When sales resumed the next day, it was announced that only 1,867 passes would be sold, causing a mad rush of people trying to get tickets. VIA’s servers and phone lines were overwhelmed for hours and in the end, some got passes, while many others were left angry and upset. Stories soon circulated on social media of people being hung up on after holding for hours, of people’s payments being refunded, and of constant browser hiccups when people attempted to pay online.

VIA Rail clearly was not prepared to deal with the onslaught of youth clogging their servers and phone lines with sheer enthusiasm for the possibility of unlimited travel.

What this incident shows, clearly, is that young people will use public transit, provided it is made accessible to them. This enthusiasm extends to local and regional transit as well.

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Photo from Via.ca

For years, students in Toronto have attempted to lobby for an UPASS—that is, a pass granted to all college and university students that offers unlimited travel on the TTC; however, this has not come to pass. For now, young people going to school in Toronto have to contend with various discounts on the GO and TTC, but the savings these offer are marginal.

Young people also lose these savings when they leave school. Racked with student debt and facing a hostile job market, young people are expected to pay the same amount as seasoned boomers with long time jobs and stable incomes. Many forgo the expense if they can, opting out of passes and choosing to use tokens or single fares when they have to ride transit. 

Despite these barriers, according to a survey conducted by the Toronto Youth Cabinet late last year, 91 per cent of respondents said that they used public transit on a daily basis.

There are two obstacles that stand in the way of getting more people—not just young people, but all people—on public transit: funding and infrastructure.

Making transit accessible so that more people can ride it requires bringing down the cost of a fare; that requires significant subsidies from the government. Toronto ranks lowest amongst large North American cities when it comes transit subsidies. VIA Rail likewise has also faced cuts; in 2015 it received a subsidy of $73 per passenger, compared to $83 the year prior. 

More people using public transit means that there will also have to be upgrades to infrastructure; more trains, new lines and structural improvements will be necessary.

One of the reasons VIA Rail gave for limiting the pass, was that they were not enough seats available to fulfill the demand.

Young people have the potential to revitalize our public transit systems. But until we start investing in transit so that it’s more accessible, this revitalization will continue to be more of a dream than reality.

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