VIA Rail President and CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano was in Halifax on January 31, 2017 to deliver a talk to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Billed as “VIA Rail’s vision in the Maritimes”, Desjardins-Siciliano addressed a full banquet hall during a luncheon at the Westin Nova Scotian.
Desjardins-Siciliano’s talk was accompanied by a slide presentation, which can be found on our website HERE.
The talk addressed VIA’s plans for the Maritimes, which are essentially two-fold: the anticipated launch of daily regional train services between Campbellton and Moncton and Moncton and Halifax, and the exploration of commuter rail possibilities in the city of Halifax.
It also delved into VIA’s broader goals at the moment, which include seeking funding for a new fleet and dedicated tracks in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor. Though this doesn’t directly affect the Maritimes, Desjardins-Siciliano reiterated the mantra that what’s good for the Corridor is good for the rest of the system. If VIA can generate additional revenue from that operation, they can use it to add new services and expand their offerings throughout the country. The president has stated on several occasions that the ability to look at launching new regional services in the Maritimes is the result of positive returns in the Corridor in recent years, which have freed up additional funds.
The plans for new regional rail services were originally announced close to two years ago. Despite the delay in launching them, Desjardins-Siciliano was clear that they are a priority for VIA (the top priority outside of the Corridor, in fact), and staff in the region have been hard at work trying to make the necessary arrangements to get the services off the ground. As previously reported, the plan is to run daily weekday trains between Campbellton and Moncton, and between Moncton and Halifax. Trains would depart Campbellton and Moncton heading eastbound early in the morning, and return westbound in the evening. This would allow for travellers to come into Moncton or Halifax for the day to shop, attend medical appointments or other obligations, and return later on the same day.
Any hopes for a restoration of the Ocean to 6/week or daily service were effectively quashed, as Desjardins-Siciliano made it clear that VIA had no plans to change the 3/week frequency. He acknowledged that he is asked regularly about that possibility, but said that VIA felt that the addition of daily regional services, combined with the 3/week schedule of the Ocean, would provide better travel options for the Maritimes. He did, however, state that the extra departures over the Christmas season were a success, and VIA plans to continue running these extra trains in the future.
The plan remains to run these new services with RDCs (self-propelled rail diesel cars), and it appears that getting the equipment certified by CN for the operation has been one of the causes for the delay, in addition to waiting on securing time slots for the new schedule. The hope is now that these services could be launched by this fall, but that timeline has been shifting for 2 years now, and could easily continue to do so.
The other point of discussion was VIA’s talk with the Halifax Regional Municipality about a potential commuter rail system between Windsor Jct. and downtown Halifax, running along the Bedford Basin. It was reported last year that VIA had made an “unsolicited proposal” to run commuter trains in Halifax. Desjardins-Siciliano provided some more detail on what this meant, explaining that VIA had effectively offered to provide whatever support they could if the city wanted to get a commuter rail system up and running. VIA has experience running trains, and assets such as the downtown station, qualified crews, and ticketing infrastructure; these may prove to be of use for the city.
It’s clear that any plan for commuter rail will need to be driven by Halifax, but VIA’s cooperation may provide an incentive to help the city move those plans forward. Desjardins-Siciliano was meeting with city officials during his time in town, but it’s not yet clear how far those discussions have gone, nor what the next steps will be.
Several members of TAA’s board of directors had the opportunity to attend the talk, and also met in private with Desjardins-Siciliano following the luncheon. We had the chance to ask further questions about the details of their proposals, and also to share our thoughts and concerns about some of what VIA was proposing. We have made it clear that while we may not always agree on the best approach to improving VIA’s service in the region, we share the same goals, and want to see VIA be successful in the Maritimes.
We may not be on the same page, but we’re at least in the same book, and very likely in the same chapter. Let’s hope that VIA’s plans will lead to a brighter future for passenger rail in the Maritimes.
Related: Here’s a CBC article about Desjardins-Siciliano’s visit.