Transport Action Atlantic is asking why it is taking so long for VIA Rail and the Government of Canada to deliver on an outstanding promise to improve frequency of passenger rail services in the Maritimes. Today is National Railway Day – the anniversary of the last spike ceremony that marked completion of Canada’s continuous rail link from coast to coast on November 7, 1885.
“It’s a very appropriate occasion to pose this question,” says Ted Bartlett, president of the regional public transportation advocacy group, “and not just because it’s a date that was so important in the development of Canada’s nationhood. It was three years ago this week that VIA’s CEO unveiled a plan to reintroduce regional service within Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, using the same type of rail diesel cars (RDCs) that had been discontinued in January 1990 as part of sweeping cuts mandated by the Mulroney Government. His timeline called for the routes between Moncton and Halifax and Moncton and Campbellton to be operational by late summer or early fall of 2016.
“That goal, unfortunately, was not met. Neither were several other target dates subsequently offered. We’re still waiting, and VIA management is no longer even suggesting possible start dates. Furthermore, we understand that there will be no additional frequency or capacity offered during the holiday travel season this year, something that had become standard practice in recent years to augment the very limited schedule normally offered in this region.” Continue reading “Advocates have questions on National Railway Day”→
[Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2018 edition of “The Bulletin”]
Early in 2018 VIA released their 2017-2021 Corporate Plan. These documents, released each year and looking ahead for the next five, offer a synopsis of the state of the railway and tend to provide insight into what VIA is looking at moving forward. In the last few years these plans have focused heavily on VIA’s need for new equipment, and some of the challenges (e.g. deteriorating on time performance on many routes, rising costs) and successes (e.g. ridership growth), as well as a look at their plans across the entire system. This latest corporate plan, which can be found in full online (http://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/About_VIA/our-company/corporate-plan/CorporatePlan_2017-2021.pdf) has some specific items of interest for Atlantic Canada.
There is a blurb describing the operation of the Ocean, which has some new phrasing this year. It reads: “During the holiday season, VIA Rail adds extra departures.” That is a change from past years, which used past tense phrasing (e.g. last year it said “during the holiday season, VIA Rail added six extra departures”). This seems to imply that the holiday frequency expansion is now considered a standard annual practice. This is further confirmed in the following section. *EDIT: Since publication, we have learned that VIA will not be running any extra trains this holiday season. More details to come soon, but it seems a major factor this year is that the normal dates of operation fall rather optimally around the Christmas and New Years holidays. In any case, it is still a reduction of capacity, and disappointing news.*
Transport Action Atlantic is viewing recent statements from both Prime Minister Trudeau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau on the future of VIA Rail service with a mixture of optimism and concern. Both have been quoted in media interviews as being supportive of the Crown corporation’s proposals for enhanced rail passenger service in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, as well as the urgent need to replace severely aging equipment.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Minister Garneau indicated the Government of Canada is treating VIA’s initiatives as two separate funding decisions, and expressed clear support for VIA’s fleet renewal request.
“There’s no question that VIA train service must continue and that some of the train cars are getting old,” he told the newspaper. “We need to address the issue so that we continue to have a reliable and predictable service. We need to replace the hardware once in a while.”
That’s really quite an understatement. The last federal investment in new intercity rail passenger cars was nearly 40 years ago, and some coaches in VIA’s active fleet date back to 1947. But the most troublesome component is the so-called Renaissance equipment – acquired second-hand from the UK in 2001 after the overnight Channel Tunnel service they were intended for failed to get off the ground. Many of the partially-completed cars in the 139-unit purchase never turned a wheel in revenue service, and were eventually scrapped, with some components salvaged to keep others operational. Most of the survivors are now running on VIA’s last remnant of service to Atlantic Canada – the tri-weekly Ocean.
Attempts to force-fit the British-built cars to the Canadian operating environment were far from a resounding success, and nearly two decades of exposure to winter weather and other conditions for which they were never designed have taken a severe toll. At this writing, one Ocean Renaissance train set is out of service for an indefinite period, following a massive electrical failure at Halifax in early January. The departure was cancelled, the passengers transferred to buses, and the empty train limped back to Montreal for repairs.
At one time, VIA fielded three sets of Renaissance cars, but only two were required after the ill-advised reduction in Ocean service frequency in 2012. Now, maintaining even a smaller number of cars in serviceable condition has evidently become a challenge for the corporation.
Arguably, a high priority for government and VIA should be replacement of the troublesome Renaissance cars with modern equipment of proven design that’s suitable for North American operation. Given the lead time required for order and delivery of passenger rolling stock, and the unfortunate reality that the British-built cars are already past their best-before date, it will be increasingly difficult to keep the Ocean running reliably even if the funding comes in the next federal budget. But Transport Action Atlantic is concerned that only the corridor service appears to be under consideration for new equipment at this time, leaving the run to the Maritimes in a precarious position indeed.
“Canada does not end at Quebec City,” says TAA president Ted Bartlett. “Passenger rail investment all across the country has been neglected for years by successive governments. The entire VIA network must be re-equipped, and the area where the need is most urgent cannot be overlooked. We acknowledge that the corridor is the vital heart of passenger rail in Canada, but the link to the Atlantic provinces is very important for connecting Canadians. Furthermore, many Maritime communities that are underserved by public transportation are heavily dependent on the service the Ocean provides.”
Bartlett added that the track infrastructure in the Maritimes – particularly in northern New Brunswick – is also in urgent need of attention. While the required investment is extremely modest when compared with VIA’s proposal for a dedicated passenger line in the corridor, it is necessary if trains are to once again operate safely at the same speeds that were in effect 20 years ago. As recently as 2005, VIA trains traveled from Moncton to Campbellton in four hours. The same trip today requires nearly six hours, because of deteriorated track.