VIA Rail’s services across Canada are nearing a critical point. The fleet that supports VIA’s long distance services, including the Ocean, VIA’s last remaining service in Atlantic Canada, is rapidly approaching the end of its serviceable life. If VIA is not able to launch procurement for new equipment as soon as possible, this could mean the end of all Canadian long distance passenger service in the early 2030s.
Transport Action Atlantic and our national and regional affiliates are working hard to tell the federal government that action is needed immediately.
There are two things that you can do today to help:
Fill out the Budget 2024 survey to voice your support for funding for VIA’s long distance fleet renewal.
Please read on below for more details on how to take action today, and please share this message with those you know who also support the future of passenger rail in this country.
As always, your support is critical to keep passenger rail on track in Atlantic Canada and beyond!
Tim Hayman President, Transport Action Atlantic ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
House of Commons Petition
A campaign is underway to help VIA Rail maintain its services and increase on-time performance as well as make other improvements to ensure it can deliver sustainable rail transportation across Canada, through a petition to the House of Commons.
Created by Transport Action Canada (www.transportaction.ca), a national public transportation and passenger advocacy group (TAA’s national affiliate), the petition asks that the government ensure funding to renew VIA Rail’s long-distance fleet is provided in the 2024 federal budget, to avert service cuts in Atlantic and Western Canada.
VIA is entering a second federal budget cycle asking for funding to replace its aging long-distance fleet. Engineering reports show that the fleet is nearing the end of its serviceable life, with many cars at 70 years of age. Given the timeline for ordering and manufacturing, if funding is not provided this spring to order a new, fully accessible, modern fleet, VIA will no longer be able to provide train service beyond the Quebec-Windsor corridor by the early 2030s.
This would mean the demise of ‘The Ocean’ between Montreal and Halifax, the world-famous Toronto-Vancouver ‘The Canadian’, and all other routes that serve smaller cities, remote, and Indigenous communities across the country, as well as the tourism sector.
The public rail operator also often suffers greatly from delays beyond its control, as new CEO Mario Peloquin made clear in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail in October. VIA’s on-time performance has declined to only 60% on railways where freight trains have right of way, while it is 90% on tracks owned by VIA — unfortunately VIA only owns 3% of the tracks it runs on.
The petition therefore asks the government to restore right of way for passenger trains, as envisaged in NDP MP Taylor Bachrach’s private member’s bill C-371, to ensure passengers arrive on time and reduce the padding in train schedules, which would also result in substantial cost savings.
“It’s not just a few hours. Three whole days have been added to the time it takes to travel from Halifax to Vancouver.” says Terry Johnson, President of Transport Action Canada
Advocates are also asking that the government and transport minister Pablo Rodriguez implement several other measures to help VIA Rail provide reliable and environmentally friendly transportation from coast to coast. This would include providing VIA Rail with a legislative mandate to maintain and expand passenger rail service in Canada, which the Crown Corporation has lacked since its creation in 1978; providing for passenger and worker representation on its board of directors, which contributes to the success of other national carriers in Germany and France; and addressing outsourcing concerns by ensuring the public operator’s continued role in the High Frequency Rail project.
The federal government is currently accepting submissions from Canadians with their priorities ahead of Budget 2024. This is a key opportunity to provide your input and voice support for public transportation issues that matter to you.
TAA will be making a formal pre-budget submission covering both passenger rail and other key transportation issues in the region (intercity buses, ferries, and freight rail), but we also encourage you to fill out the survey to voice your support. You can access the “Let’s Talk Budget 2024” form here: https://www.letstalkbudget24.ca/let-s-talk-budget-2024
The deadline to make submissions is Feburary 9th (this Friday), so please take a few minutes to fill out the questionnaire in the coming days.
If you’re looking for guidance on your submission as it relates to VIA Rail’s long distance fleet renewal, please see the sample below from TAA’s draft budget submission. Please also add your own perspectives on why maintaining and improving passenger rail service is important to you!
The federal government needs to immediately provide the funding for VIA Rail Canada to proceed with a formal procurement process to replace the entire train fleet used on its long distance, regional and remote services.
Critically, this funding should support an order for enough trains to provide at least daily service on long distance routes. In the case of the Ocean, this would mean sufficient equipment for 3 full trainsets (with appropriate spares). It is critical that VIA be able to use this opportunity to ensure a return to former levels of passenger rail service nationwide.
It’s time for Canadians across the country to be provided with a rail service that is modern, reliable, sustainable, and fully accessible.
Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King has been named the winner of Transport Action Atlantic’s John Pearce Award for 2022, recognizing outstanding contribution to public transportation in the region.
“According to Statistics Canada, PEI ranks among the most car-dependent regions in the nation,” says TAA president Tim Hayman. “But Premier King is clearly determined to change that unfortunate situation, and his outstanding leadership on the public transit file is unquestionably making a difference. The introduction of island-wide ‘toonie transit’ and the $20 monthly pass has demonstrated that it is most certainly possible to live in small towns and rural communities without the substantial financial burden of car ownership.”
The decision to honour Premier King for his progressive initiatives was made late in 2022, but the presentation was deferred because of the looming provincial election. TAA is a strictly non-partisan advocacy group, and did not wish to be perceived as taking sides in the campaign.
From a pilot project launched in October 2021 serving Souris, Georgetown, Montague and other communities on the eastern end of PEI, Island Transit has expanded to reach westward to Alberton and Tignish, and north to the Cavendish area where it has enabled seasonal workers without cars to accept jobs in the tourism industry. In March 2022 the Province went a step further, introducing the $20 island-wide monthly transit pass on a trial basis. That’s the fare for adult riders; seniors and students pay just half that price, and everyone under 18 rides for free. The pass is also valid on T3 Transit in Greater Charlottetown. Ridership on both systems is steadily growing, with 2600 passes purchased in November.
The program proved so successful that the government funding has been extended indefinitely, and Premier King tells TAA it enjoys a wide base of support among islanders from all walks of life and political persuasions. It was an easy decision to make, he says, as it both reduces the province’s carbon footprint and helps make life more affordable for islanders.
“Canada’s smallest province has set a very progressive example for other jurisdictions to follow,” said Tim Hayman. “Transport Action Atlantic encourages the other three premiers in our region to take a closer look at what Premier King has achieved, and consider launching similar public transit initiatives in their provinces.”
The John Pearce Award was created to commemorate Transport Action Atlantic’s long-time former president, who devoted more than 40 years to public transportation advocacy. It is awarded annually to an individual or group to recognize an outstanding contribution, consistent with Mr. Pearce’s life-long passion.
Welcome back to Atlantic Transport News! We’ve been quiet through the last several months, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been lots going on, both in terms of regional transportation news developments and ongoing advocacy work from our members throughout the region.
As an all-volunteer organization, keeping these monthly newsletters going has always been a challenge, and through this summer we simply haven’t had the bandwidth to keep them going on a monthly basis. We’re always looking for help with submissions and assistance to keep these newsletters alive and going – please see the last item in this issue for more information, and consider if you or someone you know might be able to assist.
Here’s the run-down of what you’ll find in this “catch-up” issue:
VIA RAIL NEWS RECAP – NEW EQUIPMENT RFI, A NEW PRESIDENT, AND SUMMER SERVICE DISRUPTIONS
There has been a fair bit of news on the VIA Rail file over the past several months.
In May, the results of the testing of VIA’s HEP fleet finally came out, and the much maligned “buffer car” requirement was dropped. This had never had a significant impact on the Ocean’s current configuration, aside from restricting the ability to carry pets in the baggage car; but the need to use otherwise serviceable equipment as “buffers” had an impact on fleet availability.
At the end of April, VIA formally issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFI) to potential suppliers for its long distance fleet replacement program, marking a more formal step in this procurement. We were disappointed that the federal government did not provide funding for this much needed long distance fleet replacement in the last budget, but the fact that VIA continues to do the ground work on moving this program ahead is encouraging. Given the timeline for new
The launch of VIA’s much-anticipated and oft-delayed new reservations system continues to be pushed off. One unfortunate and unanticipated impact of this pending new system, which we discovered to great dismay earlier this year, is that all intermodal ticketing has been dropped by VIA. The new system, apparently, will not (at least initially) be able to accommodate this function, so interline ticketing with partners including Maritime Bus and the REGIM bus shuttles to Gaspé were dropped earlier this year. Even though the reservations system still hasn’t launched as of this fall, the REGIM shuttle was dropped for the entire summer. There was undoubtedly room for improvement in the intermodal partnerships, but this is a huge step backwards, and not the sort of “improvement” we hoped for with the new system.
TAA is generally encouraged by Péloquin’s background and what we’ve heard about his work in the VIA c-suite so far. We extended our congratulations to him on his appointment, and have also requested a meeting when the opportunity arises. We will be sure to update if and when we have such an opportunity.
At the end of August, VIA released their second quarter report for 2023. The news was generally positive, and for the Ocean, revenues for the quarter were up 55% over the previous year, with ridership up 46.4%. This is of course in part due to the fact that the train’s frequency for much of that quarter in 2022 was still only at 2 departures each way per week, increasing back to 3/week shortly before the end of the quarter. By contrast, the train has operated at the full 3/week frequency for all of the equivalent quarter in 2023. You can read the full report here: https://media.viarail.ca/sites/default/files/publications/VIA%20Rail_Second%20Quarter%20Report%202023.pdf
Locally, the Ocean has continued to operate in its new incarnation as usual this summer. Anecdotally, ridership appears to be consistent, though capacity on the trains continues to be less than what was offered pre-2020. This summer has once again been plagued by chronic delays, as a CN track work program on the Mont-Joli sub, compounded by heat related speed restrictions, has resulted in both trains 14 and 15 experiencing delays in excess of 2 to 3 hours (and on occasion as much as 6 to 8 hours) on the regular throughout this summer. This has resulted in the loss of early connecting trains in Montreal, and frequently late evening arrivals in Halifax. These issues are no doubt made worse by the ongoing long-term slow orders along many parts of the Newcastle Subdivision, for which there is no clear remedy in sight.
Train service was disrupted a few times by extreme weather events. In July, parts of Nova Scotia received unprecedented rainfall, with a number of washouts of the rail line including a major washout between Truro and Halifax. All service on the Bedford Subdivision was curtailed for nearly a week, while CN crews worked to repair the washout. VIA service was truncated at Moncton for several trips. Though VIA provided buses for the first trains affected by this washout, passengers going beyond Moncton were left to fend for themselves on the following trips. Fortunately, Maritime Bus stepped in to offer additional buses from Moncton to help accommodate passengers, a good move on their part and something we would have hoped to see coordinated by VIA.
Further train cancellations took place in September, with the arrival of post-tropical storm Lee. CN suspended all train operations in the region on Saturday, September 16th. VIA initially indicated that trains 14 and 15 would be delayed by 24 hours to avoid the storm, but they then cancelled both trains instead. Passengers were refunded, but offered no alternate transportation.
Both of these service interruptions highlight a change in VIA policy that TAA finds particularly troubling: a shift to cancelling trains with no accommodation for passengers, aside from offering refunds and in some cases additional travel credits. VIA once had a reputation for going to great lengths to accommodate disrupted passengers, but their current attitude seems to have shifted to a “sorry, you’re on your own” approach. While it’s entirely understandable that trains sometimes have to be cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances, the new approach to customer service seems more likely than ever to leave affected passengers thinking twice about returning to the rails.
PEI – FEDS TO PURCHASE NORWEGIAN FERRY REPLACE MV HOLIDAY ISLAND
After the MV Holiday Island burned last year, PEI has been borrowing a ferry from Quebec to provide a second vessel on the Caribou – Wood Islands service. In August, the federal government announced that they will be purchasing the Norwegian ferry MV Fanafjord as a replacement for the MV Holiday Island. This will allow the service to continue with two dedicated vessels starting in 2024 and until the Holiday Island replacement vessel is built and delivered, which won’t be earlier than 2028.
Meanwhile, as the respective parties bicker, the isthmus remains vulnerable and major work to protect it for the future continues to be put off.
HALIFAX TRANSIT – NEXT ROUND OF SERVICE CHANGES IS MORE POSITIVE, BUT ELECTRONIC FARE PAYMENT DELAYED AGAIN
Halifax Transit has announced their next round of service changes, coming November 20, and after a series of scale backs to routes due to shortages of drivers, it seems recruitment and retention efforts are finally starting to bear some positive fruit. The new changes include several added and adjusted routes, as well as the return of many departures that were previously cancelled due to low driver availability.
TRANSIT SYSTEMS AROUND THE REGION SEE CONTINUED PASSENGER GROWTH, PILOT NEW INITIATIVES
Municipal transit systems throughout the Maritimes have been continuing to see growth in passenger numbers, due to a combination of returns to pre-pandemic commuting patterns, population growth, and perhaps some shift to transit with increasing fuel prices.
We at TAA feel that these news updates are a useful way to keep our members and supporters updated on important transportation news in the region, and we’ve heard from folks who enjoy reading and following along. Unfortunately, this work is time consuming, and as an all-volunteer organization we are often stretched for bandwidth to keep these going, while also trying to focus on our core advocacy work.
We can always use help with this work. Do you have a particular story you’re interested in and following closely? Can you write up a short description of the issue, an update on developments, or some local perspective on what’s happening? As you can see from past issues, this doesn’t have to be lengthy or in-depth, but it always helps to have a bit of perspective from someone who has been following the issue. This doesn’t have to be a regular recurring contribution either – anything you can contribute in a given month is welcome!
We also have a publication for our membership, The Bulletin, which is focused more on longer-form content, analysis, and opinion pieces. We’re also always interested in submissions for this publications. If you’re interested, have a look at some recent past publications for ideas about what that content looks like, and please reach out if you have something you’d like to contribute.
If you have ideas for stories for either this newsletter or The Bulletin, feel free to reach out any time. You can email your stories, ideas, and any other feedback to email@example.com
We are also always looking for volunteers to support our advocacy work, and to potentially join our board of directors. If that’s something you’d be interested in and feel you could contribute to, please let us know.