Via Rail - A
Via Rail Canada Inc. (reporting mark VIA) (/ˈviːə/; generally shortened to Via Rail or Via; styled corporately as VIA Rail Canada) is a Canadian Crown corporation that is mandated to operate intercity passenger rail service in Canada. It receives an annual subsidy from Transport Canada to offset the cost of operating services connecting remote communities.
Via Rail operates over 500 trains per week across eight Canadian provinces and 12,500 kilometres (7,800 mi) of track, 97 per cent of which is owned and maintained by other railway companies, mostly by Canadian National Railway (CN). Via Rail carried approximately 4.39 million passengers in 2017, the majority along the Corridor routes connecting the major cities of the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, and had an on-time performance of 73 per cent
Via Rail History
Yearly passenger levels on Canada's passenger trains peaked at 60 million during World War II. Following the war the growth of air travel and the personal automobile caused significant loss of mode share for Canada's passenger train operators. By the 1960s it was obvious to both Canadian National Railway (CN) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) that passenger trains were no longer economically viable. CP sought to divest itself of its passenger trains, but federal government regulators and politicians balked, forcing them to maintain a minimal service through the 1970s, with the government subsidizing up to 80 percent of losses. CN, being a Crown corporation at that time, was encouraged by the federal government and political interests to invest in passenger trains. Innovative marketing schemes such as Red, White, and Blue fares, new equipment such as scenic dome cars and rail diesel cars, and services such as Rapido and the UAC TurboTrain trains temporarily increased numbers of passengers, reversing previous declines.:4–5
These increases proved temporary; by 1977, total passenger numbers had dropped below five million. The decline of passenger rail became a federal election issue in 1974 when the government of Pierre Trudeau promised to implement a nationwide carrier similar to Amtrak in the United States. Starting in 1976, CN began branding its passenger services with the bilingual name Via or Via CN. The Via logo began to appear on CN passenger locomotives and cars, while still carrying CN logos as well. That September, Via published a single timetable with information on both CN and CP trains, marking the first time that Canadians could find all major passenger trains in one publication. In 1977, CN underwent a dramatic restructuring when it placed various non-core freight railway activities into separate subsidiaries, such as ferries under CN Marine, and passenger trains under Via Rail which was subsequently renamed Via Rail Canada.:6–9
Formation and early years
On 12 January 1977, CN spun off its passenger services as a separate Crown corporation, Via Rail Canada. At its inception, Via acquired all CN passenger cars and locomotives. Following several months of negotiation, on 29 October 1978, Via assumed all CP passenger train operations and took possession of cars and locomotives. Passenger train services which were not included in the creation of Via Rail included those offered by BC Rail, Algoma Central Railway, Ontario Northland Railway, Quebec North Shore & Labrador Railway, various urban commuter train services operated by CN and CP, and remaining CN passenger services in Newfoundland. At this time, Via did not own any trackage and had to pay right-of-way fees to CN and CP, sometimes being the only user of rural branch lines.
Via initially had a tremendous variety of equipment — much of it in need of replacement — and operated routes stretching from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Prince Rupert, British Columbia and north to Churchill, Manitoba. Over 150 scheduled trains per week were in operation, including transcontinental services, regional trains, and corridor services.
While Via remains an independent federal Crown corporation mandated to operate as a business, it is hindered by the fact that it was created by an Order in Council of the Privy Council, and not from legislation passed by Parliament. Had Via been enabled by legislation, the company would be permitted to seek funding on the open money markets as other Crown corporations such as CN have done in the past. It is largely for this reason that critics say Via—like Amtrak in the United States—is vulnerable to federal budget cuts and continues to answer first to its political masters, as opposed to the business decisions needed to ensure the viability of intercity passenger rail service.
Greater numbers of passengers would not be Via's saviour. In 1981, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's government endorsed Minister of Transport Jean-Luc Pépin's plan which slash Via's budget, leading to a 40 percent reduction in the company's operations. Frequently sold-out trains such as the Super Continental (which reduced Via to operating only one transcontinental train, The Canadian) and the popular Atlantic were discontinued.
Via also sought to reduce its reliance on over 30-year-old second-hand equipment and placed a significant order with Bombardier Transportation for new high-speed locomotives and cars which would be used in its corridor trains. The LRC (Light, Rapid, Comfortable) locomotives and cars used advanced technology such as active tilt to increase speed, but proved troublesome and took several years to work out problems (by 1990 only a handful of LRC locomotives remained in service which were subsequently retired by the arrival of the GE Genesis locomotives in 2001).
The election of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government in 1984 brought an initial friend to Via, when several of Mulroney's commitments included rescinding the Via cuts of 1981 by restoring the Super Continental (under pressure from his western caucus), and the Atlantic (under pressure from his eastern caucus and then-Saint John mayor Elsie Wayne). Prime Minister Mulroney's government gave Via funding to refurbish some of its cars, and purchase new locomotives, this time a more reliable model from General Motors diesel division.
It was during this time on 8 February 1986, that Via's eastbound Super Continental collided with a CN freight train near Hinton, Alberta, as a result of the freight train crew missing a signal light, resulting in 23 deaths.
By the late 1980s, inflation and other rising costs were taking their toll on federal budgets and in the Mulroney government's 1989 budget, Via again saw its budget slashed, surpassing even the 1981 cuts under Trudeau.
Minister of Transport Benoît Bouchard oversaw the reduction in service on 15 January 1990, when Via's operations were reduced by 55 percent. Services such as the Super Continental were again discontinued, along with numerous disparate rural services such as in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley and Cape Breton Island, western Canada, and in the corridor. The Canadian was also moved from its home rails on CP to the northerly CN route (previously plied by the Super Continental). The shift to the less-populated (and less scenic) route between Toronto and Vancouver severed major western cities such as Regina and Calgary from the passenger rail network and flared western bitterness toward the Government of Canada.
The official justification for the rerouting was that the trains would serve more remote communities, but the concentration of ridings held by the Progressive Conservatives along the CN route attracted the charge that the move was chiefly political. Harvie André, one of Alberta's federal cabinet ministers who represented Calgary, stated publicly that he did not care if he never saw a passenger train again in his life.
The Mulroney cuts allowed Via to consolidate its fleet of cars and locomotives, resulting in a fleet of refurbished stainless steel (HEP-1 and HEP-2 rebuilds) and LRC cars, as well as rationalizing its locomotive fleet with GM and Bombardier (LRC) units.
Via was not spared from further cutbacks in Jean Chrétien's Liberal government elected in 1993. Minister of Finance Paul Martin's first budget in 1994 saw further Via cuts which saw the popular Atlantic dropped from the schedule, focusing the eastern transcontinental service on the Ocean. CP had sold off a large portion of track the Atlantic had operated on and, as Via at that time was only mandated to provide passenger services on tracks belonging to CN or CP, the route was discontinued. This move was seen as somewhat controversial and politically motivated as the principal cities benefiting from the Atlantic's service were Sherbrooke, Quebec and Saint John, New Brunswick, where the only two Progressive Conservative Party Members of Parliament in Canada were elected in the 1993 federal election in which Chrétien's Liberal Party took power. The Ocean service which was preserved currently operates on track between Montreal and Halifax running through the lower St. Lawrence River valley and northern New Brunswick. The Minister of Transport in Chrétien's government at the time, Douglas Young, was elected from a district that included Bathurst, New Brunswick, on the Ocean's route. A remote Via service to Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, the Chaleur was also spared from being cut at this time, despite carrying fewer passengers than the Atlantic.
By the late 1990s, with a rail-friendly Minister of Transport, David Collenette, in office, there were modest funding increases to Via. Corridor services were improved with new and faster trains, a weekly tourist train, The Bras d'Or, returned Via service to Cape Breton Island for the first time since the 1990 cuts, and a commitment was made to continue operating on Vancouver Island, but western Canada continued to languish with the only service provided by the Canadian and a few remote service trains in northern BC and Manitoba.
In a significant new funding program dubbed "Renaissance", a fleet of unused passenger cars which had been built for planned Nightstar sleeper services between locations in the United Kingdom and Continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel were purchased and adapted following the cancellation of the Nightstar project. The new "Renaissance" cars were swiftly nicknamed déplaisance ("displeasure") by French-speaking employees and customers, due to early problems adapting the equipment for Canadian use. Doors and toilets froze in cold Atlantic Canada temperatures, resulting in delays and service interruptions. New diesel-electric P42DC locomotives purchased from General Electric (GE) allowed the withdrawal of older locomotives, including remaining LRCs. LRC passenger cars were retained and continued to provide much of the Corridor service. This expansion to Via's fleet has permitted scheduling flexibility. Additionally, many passenger stations have been remodelled into passenger-friendly destinations, with several hosting co-located transit and regional bus hubs for various municipalities.
On 24 October 2003, federal Minister of Transport David Collenette announced $700 million in new funding over the next five years. This funding was below the $3 billion needed to implement a high-speed rail proposal in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor nicknamed ViaFast; however, the funding was intended to "provide for faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger service across Canada... preserving the option for higher speed rail, such as the Via Fast proposal," said Collenette. This new project was to be called "Renaissance II".
On 18 December 2003, Liberal Prime Minister (PM) Paul Martin announced a freeze in federal spending on all major capital projects, including Via's five-year $700 million "Renaissance II" program announced just six weeks earlier by outgoing PM Chrétien's administration. Critics of Martin's cuts claimed that he was in a distinct conflict of interest as his family through Canada Steamship Lines and various subsidiary and affiliated companies had once had a significant investment in the Voyageur Colonial Bus Lines, an intercity bus line in Quebec and eastern Ontario that is a key competitor of Via.
Route cuts under the Martin government included the withdrawal of the seasonal Bras d'Or tourist train, which ran for the last time in September 2004, and the Montreal-Toronto overnight Enterprise, which was discontinued in September 2005. The Sarnia-Chicago International was also discontinued in April 2004 by Amtrak. Via's portion of the route from Toronto-Sarnia remained in operation as Via was able to use their own equipment to operate the train.
The federal Auditor General's report released publicly on 10 February 2004 showed what appeared to be a criminal misdirection of government funds intended for advertising to key Quebec-based supporters of the Liberal Party of Canada. Included in the Auditor General's report was the fact that Via was used as one of several federal government departments, agencies, and Crown corporations to funnel these illicit funds. Forced to act on the Auditor General's report due to its political implications, Martin's government suspended Via President Marc LeFrançois on 24 February 2004, giving him an ultimatum of several days to defend himself against allegations in the report or face further disciplinary action.
Several days later during LeFrançois's suspension, former Via marketing department employee Myriam Bédard claimed she was fired several years earlier when she questioned company billing practices in dealing with advertising companies. (According to CBC News, an arbitrator's report later concluded that Bédard had voluntarily left Via.) She was publicly belittled by Via CEO Jean Pelletier in national media on 27 February 2004. Pelletier retracted his statements but on 1 March, Pelletier was fired. By 5 March, after failing to defend himself adequately against the allegations in the Auditor General's report, LeFrançois was fired as well.
Increasing problems and reinstated funding
The reversal of funding in 2003 led to a backlog of deferred maintenance and left Via unable to replace or refurbish life-expired locomotives and rolling stock. Conversely, Via ridership increased from 3.8 million in 2005 to 4.1 million in 2006. On 11 October 2007, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced federal government funding of $691.9 million over five years (of which $519 million for capital projects), and the remainder additional operating funding. The capital funding was earmarked to refurbish Via's fleet of 54 F40PH-2 locomotives to meet new emissions standards and extend their service lives by 15–20 years, refurbish the interiors of LRC coaches, reduce track capacity bottlenecks and speed restrictions in the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor, and make repairs to a number of stations across the network.
This announcement was similar in content to the previous "Renaissance II" package, and once again was criticized for not including new equipment or funding for services outside the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor. Shortly afterwards, documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act revealed that delays due to equipment failures had risen by 60 percent since the previous year. The company attributed this to problems with the aging F40 locomotive fleet.
On 27 January 2009, the Government of Canada announced in its 2009 Economic Action Plan that it would increase funding to Via by $407 million to support improvements, including increased train frequencies and enhanced on-time performance and speed, particularly in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.
On 21 July 2009, Via announced its engineers would go on strike as of 24 July if no deal was reached by then, and began cancelling all trains in anticipation of strike. The strike officially began at midnight on July 24 after it became clear that no deal had been reached. Engineers had been without a contract since 31 December 2006. Full service resumed on 27 July 2009. An additional strike by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, representing around 2,200 employees, was planned to begin on 4 July 2010, but was called off after the union and Via reached a three-year contract.
Via experienced more service cuts at the dawn of the 2010. In March 2011, the daily Victoria–Courtenay The Malahat RDC service on Vancouver Island was suspended indefinitely due to deteriorating track (it has yet to resume). By 27 June 2012, Via announced additional service cuts due to funding issues:
To address declining on-time performance due to freight train traffic on Via routes, MP Olivia Chow drafted a private member's bill in 2014 that would reorganize the company and allow the government to force freight rail carriers to give scheduling priority to public passenger rail. However, as with most private member's bills, it was not passed.
The Quebec-Windsor corridor was the focus of service restorations and implements. A direct Ottawa-Quebec City train was restored, with additional trips between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto being added. In 2016, LRC passenger cars used for the corridor were refurbished; in the Via 1 class, this included single seating.
In March 2017, Via announced the release of a new category of rail pass valid for the month of July 2017 (corresponding to Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations) for youth aged 18–25, costing $150 (several hundred dollars cheaper than a comparable rail pass would typically cost). A larger than expected response resulted in the temporary loss of functionality for Via's website. Despite plans to cap the number of passes sold at 1867 (the year of Canadian Confederation), over 4,000 passes were ultimately sold. The company received significant backlash, as it initially appeared there was no limit on the number of passes available.
Extreme winter conditions had always been an operational hazard for Via, with the Ottawa routes and Canadian being most vulnerable. Equally, summer repairs and construction often delayed trains systemwide, even though schedules were regularly adjusted in an attempt to minimize delays.
However, by 2018, freight traffic on the heavily used CN lines had become a significant concern for maintaining on-time service. This issue arose due to typical siding sizes, which were not long enough to accommodate modern freight trains. Passenger trains were consequently placed on sidings whenever two trains passed (rather than freights), which meant that passenger trains did not have priority on CN lines. The issue existed in all parts of the Via network, although it became most extreme on the Canadian, where delays increased from an average of five hours to as much as 50 over the four-day journey. Via ultimately addressed the issue by eliminating its late policy on its cross-Canada trains but retaining it for the Corridor routes. However, Via continues to compensate inconvenienced guests with necessary hotel accommodations prior to the journey, as well as ensuring continued transportation where a connection to a second Via train had been missed. As such, compensation costs were factored into Via's 2018 budget.
By the end of 2018, the full route time on the Canadian had been increased twice to absorb freight delays. The second extension – to five days – has been mostly successful in decreasing delays, and also allowed for a daytime transit of Hells Gate in BC, previously transversed overnight in the dark. The scheduled increased running time actually resulted in the Canadian arriving early on several occasions. However, Toronto-Vancouver service frequencies were reduced to only twice weekly during peak summer period, with a third Toronto-Edmonton run suspended entirely.
On 12 December 2018, Via announced that it had awarded a contract to Siemens Canada for 32 train sets to replace the entire Quebec City-Windsor Corridor fleet. This marked the completion of a procurement process launched following the 2018 federal budget, which allocated funding for the fleet replacement. During the request-for-proposals stage, Via had narrowed the potential suppliers down to Siemens, Bombardier, Talgo and Stadler Rail. Siemens was ultimately selected after finishing first on the key criteria, which included the ability to deliver in a timely fashion, the quality of the product offering, and the price. The new fleet will consist of Siemens SC-44 locomotives hauling a combination of coaches, business-class cars, and cab cars from the Siemens Venture series to allow bi-directional operation. The trains will be built at Siemens plant in Sacramento, California, and Siemens committed to including at least 20 percent Canadian content in the final product. The order includes an option for an additional 16 train sets to be exercised if the federal government approves Via's high-frequency dedicated-corridor project. The first train set is to be delivered for testing by winter 2021, with the first sets in service by 2022 and all trains in service by 2024. The delivery of the new trains will allow Via to retire LRC and Renaissance equipment from the corridor, and re-allocate the HEP2 and corridor-based HEP1 cars to other parts of the network.
Budget and management
Via is operated as an independent crown corporation and receives a subsidy from the Minister of Transport to provide service to remote communities. Via operates more than 500 trains per week from coast to coast. The sum of $369 million was earned from passenger revenues in 2018. Over 4.74 million passenger voyages were taken in 2018. An on-time ratio of 71 percent was achieved in that year. Over 3,115 persons were employed by Via by the end of 2018.
Via president Yves Desjardins-Siciliano stated that the subsidy for passenger rail travel in Canada in 2015 was about 200 percent: for every $1 travellers spend on fares, Canada pays $2 in subsidy.
As of May 2019, the Chair of the Board of Directors is Françoise Bertrand, while the President and CEO is Cynthia Garneau; there are 11 other persons on the Board of Directors at the same year. The Annual accounts of Via are audited to GAAP principles by the Auditor-General of Canada, under the Financial Administration Act. Via Rail Canada Inc. is incorporated under the CBCA and is subject to income taxes, should a profit ever be declared by it. The corporation had $9,300,000 in share capital as of 2018. Via also received $394.4 million of government funding in 2018.
In May 2019, Cynthia Garneau was appointed as the new CEO of Via. She replaced Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, who completed his five-year mandate on 8 May 2019.
Via has explored the introduction of daily regional service in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (connecting Halifax, Moncton, and Campbellton) to complement the thrice-weekly Ocean service to Montreal. As of 2017, Via's statement was that it was "exploring an eastern intercity corridor service" and that further developments were dependent on infrastructure upgrades and equipment testing.
Via has also expressed interest in operating commuter rail service on CN tracks in Halifax that would run from the city's downtown station as far as Windsor Junction. However, in June 2019, Halifax regional council voted unanimously to direct staff "not to pursue commuter rail service further ... due to infrastructure requirements and associated financial implications, as well as operational considerations and restraints".
High Frequency Rail Project (HFR)
Via has developed a $4.4 billion "high-frequency rail" service plan as a response to delays faced by sharing tracks with freight trains. The plan opts for a dedicated track between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, offering more frequent trains (although running at conventional speeds). In Ontario, Via would run a new rail line on currently underused tracks from Toronto to Ottawa through Peterborough instead of Kingston. In Quebec, corridor trains would travel from Montreal to Quebec City through Trois-Rivières on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River rather than on the south shore through Drummondville. Via claims this would allow them to run more trains in the corridor, reduce trip times by 25% and improve on-time performance to over 95%.
Feasibility studies have been funded by the federal government since the 2016 budget, and the 2018 budget allowed for the funding of the fleet replacement portion of the plan, though not the dedicated rail lines. Contrary to expectations, the 2019 federal budget did not include a final decision for new funds for HFR. However, in January 2020 Via announced the hiring of a joint venture of engineering firms AECOM and Arup to undertake a detailed engineering study of the proposal.
Two former Via routes
Service to Churchill was restored in late 2018, after the tracks, Churchill port, and Churchill marine tank farm were purchased by Arctic Gateway Group. The federal government assisted in the purchase with $74 million of dedicated northern infrastructure money up front and an additional commitment of $43 million over 10 years. To restore passenger rail service before winter, Arctic Gateway repaired 29 washouts in 35 days. Although a special Via train arrived in Churchill on 1 November, the first regular Via train arrived in Churchill on 4 December, 560 days after service initially ceased.
On February 13, 2020, following several days of blockades during the nationwide Coastal GasLink Pipeline protests, Via Rail announced that it would be shutting down most of its passenger train service across Canada until further notice, with the exception of the Sudbury–White River train line and the Winnipeg–Churchill train between Churchill and The Pas. Later in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all Via Rail trains were suspended with the exception of the Winnipeg-Churchill train as well as one train daily on each route within the corridor. Along with the previous protest-related service suspensions, it is the most extensive temporary reduction of service in Via Rail's history.
Travelling on Via
Travel on Via varies by region as much as class. Many of Via's policies and protocols are the product of running a national train system with varying pressures and needs of different passengers, communities, and contexts. The results are wide-ranging travel experiences depending on the distance and location of the journey.
Some Via routes outside the corridor offer the option of unscheduled stops at places where there is no station. With 48 hours notice, a passenger can request to entrain or detrain at a specified milepost. This option is available on all of the Adventure Routes, as well as the Canadian between Capreol and Winnipeg.
Classes of service
On board Amenities
Smoking is prohibited on all Via trains. Smoking tobacco has been banned on the Corridor routes since 1993 and this policy was gradually extended to all trains, while smoking cannabis was banned on all Via routes on the same day it was made legal in Canada. The last remaining on-board smoking was permitted in a smoker's lounge on some long-distance routes, only at certain times of day until 2002.
Via offers checked luggage on its longer-haul services; however, in the Corridor only certain trains have luggage cars. In older class cars there is sufficient space at the front of the car for luggage storage. In contrast, the Renaissance stock has enough space (underneath the seat) for only one small piece of carry-on luggage; the remainder must be checked.
Accessibility and safety concerns
Via offers pre-boarding assistance to those passengers requiring extra time to board its trains. Not all stations are equally accessible; some have high-level platforms or mechanical lifts. All Via trains are capable of accommodating wheelchairs, although capacity is limited.
Routes and connections
Via operates in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan. The only province or territory connected to the continental railway network and not served by Via is the Northwest Territories. Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut, Prince Edward Island, and Yukon have no rail connections to the continental network and thus no Via service.
Via operates over 475 trains per week over 19 routes, marketed in four broad categories:
The routes included in this category are:
Unlike Amtrak, which gives every route a specific name, most Via trains are identified only by their route number and destination. The only named Via trains are the Canadian and the Ocean. The five "Adventure Routes" were previously branded as the Skeena, the Saguenay, the Abitibi, the Lake Superior, and the Hudson Bay, respectively, and may still be referred to by these names in local usage.
As of 2017, the mileage makeup of Via's route network by track owner/host railway was as follows:
84 percent: Canadian National Railway
8 percent: Hudson Bay Railway
4 percent: Canadian Pacific Railway
3 percent: Via Rail
2 percent: Metrolinx (GO Transit)
In total, about 88 percent of Via trackage is owned by a Class I railroad, 8 percent by a shortline railroad, and 5 percent by a government agency.