[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.*
Under “operational issues” for the Ocean, there is a notable recognition that VIA’s reduction of frequency on the Ocean has been problematic (italics added for emphasis):
“While the Ocean has maintained a respectable OTP, frequencies were reduced from six one-way departures per week to three one-way departures. With this reduction, the Ocean does not have sufficient frequencies to deliver an adequate travel alternative in the intercity and regional markets serving between Quebec City and among Rivière-du-Loup, Campbellton, Moncton and Halifax. Additional frequencies however, in response to consumer demand, are added during the Holiday season. VIA Rail is currently investigating the possibility of an eastern intercity corridor service from Halifax to Campbellton, as further detailed in Section 3.4.4 of this Plan.”
VIA was originally reluctant to admit that the 3/week schedule was problematic, and spent the first years after the reduction insisting that they had somehow improved the service by doing so. Despite this recognition, they are not entertaining resuming daily operation, but are instead looking at launching shorter daily intercity services in the region. Section 3.4.4, referenced above, reads as follows:
“i. Eastern Intercity In 2012, the Ocean’s frequencies were cut from six to three per week. With this reduction of frequencies, the Ocean does not have sufficient frequencies to deliver an adequate travel alternative…VIA Rail is currently exploring an eastern intercity corridor service from Halifax to Campbellton, which would fill in the frequency gap that was created when the Ocean was reduced from six to three weekly frequencies and benefit local travellers. This initiative is pending infrastructure updates and equipment testing by the host railway. As previously noted, passenger rail service is important to the communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as illustrated by this excerpt from the CTA Review: ‘Passenger rail service may be the only viable transportation option for many residents living in communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick . . . The need for this passenger service is becoming more acute given the ageing demographic in Atlantic Canada that is highly dependent on public transportation services. We recommend that the CTA include an appropriate provision that would commit the federal government to guarantee the existing level of service as a minimum and provide appropriate resources to VIA Rail as required to continue pursuing and implementing new initiatives to rebuild the service.” — Atlantic Canada Ministers of Transportation Submission to the CTA Review January 23, 2015.’”
In the following section:
“Looking at travel patterns on the Ocean, two clear travel market segments can be seen: long-distance travellers between the Maritimes and Central Canada (CBTN-HLFX↔MTRL-QBEC) and regional travellers (CBTN-MCTN↔HLFX) where passengers remain within the Maritimes. For regional travellers who do not use sleeper accommodations, a smaller fleet with coach seating would lower operating costs, enabling greater frequencies. This would enhance the appeal for regional travellers, effectively providing a daily service (when combined with the ‘Coast-to-Coast’ service) for the Maritimes.”
In addition to the details about VIA’s intercity plans, page 54 of the plan has details about VIA’s part in Halifax’s commuter rail plans. The whole section is a bit much to include here, but it is well worth the read. VIA’s assessment is basically that they could provide the service at a lower cost than the consultant report that Halifax commissioned had suggested. It appears VIA is proposing a 3-year pilot:
“VIA Rail has met with HRM to assess a possible three year-pilot program for commuter train service between VIA Rail’s Halifax station and Windsor Junction. This service would be contingent upon an agreement with CN for the appropriate train frequencies. VIA Rail could provide RDC (Rail Diesel Car; self-propelled diesel multiple units that do not require a locomotive) in a manner similar to that of the Victoria – Courtenay service. “
“VIA Rail would operate the commuter service on behalf of the Halifax Regional Municipality, who would be the owner and financial backer of the service. VIA Rail is not the promoter of the project but is responding to the HRM request for help in bringing commuter rail to the people of Halifax.”
One of the outstanding questions for the future of the Ocean is the state of the Renaissance equipment. VIA has been clear that the Renaissance sets being used in the Corridor are in poor shape and must be retired by 2021, and in a response to a question asked in their annual public meeting, they have now indicated that the Renaissance fleet in Eastern Canada will also be withdrawn by 2021. The Corporate Plan makes no note of this, simply including “Renaissance Ocean Fleet Upgrades, Renaissance State of Good Repair (Ocean Only)” in the section on equipment projects. Yet it now appears that the plan will be to re-equip the train with the very stainless-steel equipment that the Renaissance fleet displaced 15 years ago.
Finally worth noting is this comment on the Ocean’s revenue forecast over the next five years. It is not clear what “on board service enhancements” means, but price increases are not welcome news:
“The Ocean Passenger revenues for the Ocean are forecast to grow by 14.8%, from $9.9 million in 2016 to $11.3 million in 2021, mainly due to GDP growth and inflation as well as certain on board service enhancements, which will allow for price increases.”
VIA did report positive ridership figures over the holiday season, noting that the Ocean saw an increase again over the same period last year. Trains in the summer have been busy again this year, with long 20-car trains nearly or entirely sold out since late May. These trends are encouraging, but the question always remains about just how much VIA can do with their existing skeletal 3/week service, and whether they are truly providing useful public transportation in the region.