Our Canada includes passenger trains…and it doesn’t end at Quebec City.

passengers boarding VIA Rail train at Moncton
The troublesome British-built Renaissance cars used in VIA Rail’s downsized Atlantic Canada service were never designed for life in Canada, and are in urgent need of replacement.  But Budget 2018 makes provision only for fleet renewal in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

[Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2018 edition of “The Bulletin”]

After four decades of neglect by successive federal governments, there finally seems to be some significant support in Ottawa for passenger rail.  In certain parts of Canada – that is.  That was the gist of a significant appropriation contained in the Trudeau Government’s Budget 2018, tabled on February 27.

The first commitment to new rolling stock in 40 years promises a complete renewal of VIA Rail Canada’s aging and tired corridor fleet.  No actual cost figures were given because of the pending procurement process, but it’s clearly an investment in the billion-plus category. VIA subsequently posted a summary of the fleet renewal program on its website, and on June 18 announced a short-list of four qualified suppliers that will have until October 5 to submit proposals.  A contract is expected to be awarded before the end of 2018, with the first of the new rolling stock in service within four years.

In short, the plan calls for 32 new bi-directional trainsets for use in the Quebec City to Windsor corridor.  Primarily the new rolling stock will replace the so-called LRC equipment, built in the early 1980s, and now rapidly approaching the end of its useful life.  Many LRC cars will need to be retired before the new orders are delivered.

But the oldest equipment on VIA’s roster isn’t destined for the scrapyard.  A total of 75 stainless steel cars originally constructed by the Budd company of Philadelphia – some dating back as far as 1946 – are getting a new lease on life.

Built to last, they are being completely refurbished to modern standards, in the expectation they will continue in service for many years to come, primarily on VIA’s flagship train the Canadian.

It’s all very positive news from a government that was quite outspoken on passenger rail while in opposition, but got off to a very slow start following its election in 2015.  In fact, VIA wasn’t even mentioned in Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s mandate letter.  And the first two budgets from the Trudeau Liberals allocated only miniscule amounts to study the requirements for fleet renewal and the dedicated tracks/high frequency rail (HFR) proposal. This time, though, there’s a solid commitment to proceed with renewal of the corridor fleet, although the government hasn’t gone beyond allocating $8 million for further study of HFR.

But what’s not so encouraging about VIA’s plan and Budget 2018 is the absence of any reference to replacing the troublesome British-built Renaissance cars that are the tired workhorses of the Ocean – the company’s only remaining train in Atlantic Canada.  Never intended for life in Canada, that equipment has not improved with age.  One Renaissance trainset was out of service for some three months this past winter after a major electrical failure at Halifax in early January.  The passengers had to be loaded unto buses, and the train deadheaded back to Montreal for repairs.

In response to questions asked during their annual public meeting, VIA has now indicated that the Renaissance equipment in Eastern Canada will be withdrawn from service by 2021, with plans to re-equip the service with stainless steel Budd equipment by the fall of 2020. How exactly that will work, given the limited availability of Budd equipment during the peak season, remains to be seen.

The once-daily Ocean now runs only three times a week on a schedule several hours slower than 20 years ago.  It simply isn’t adequate to sustain and build ridership, or even provide a useful service to Maritimers – a reality that VIA management now readily acknowledges.

Transport Action Atlantic is unequivocal about what this region needs.  Nothing less than a daily connection to that new and improved corridor service will be acceptable.  Yes – our Canada includes passenger trains – and Canada does not end at Quebec City!

TAA is using every opportunity to advocate with our regional MPs, municipalities, chambers of commerce, and provincial governments in our efforts to get everyone on board. Services to Atlantic Canada need new equipment, upgraded track, and faster schedules – and the time to plan for it is now.

Passenger rail in Canada is on a roll – and we must be part of it!

– Ted Bartlett

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