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Oct 17

VIA Rail’s 2017-2021 Corporate Plan: what’s in it for Atlantic Canada?

By Transport Action Atlantic | Atlantic

Rust spots are showing through on this Renaissance sleeper, a common sight on many of these cars in 2018. Corrosion has been the source of many problems with this equipment, and after only 15 years in service on the Ocean, VIA is already planning to retire the fleet in the next few years. (PHOTO – Tim Hayman)

[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 ( 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.

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.

-Tim Hayman

Source: TAA

Oct 12

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

By Transport Action Atlantic | Atlantic

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

Source: TAA

Oct 10

VIA celebrating 40th birthday…but it hasn’t been a roadbed of roses

By Transport Action Atlantic | Atlantic


Several images of VIA Rail trains, along with a colourful banner marking 40 years of VIA Rail
In 2018 Canada’s national passenger rail service is marking the 40th anniversary of its creation. Some critics will ask if there’s really anything to celebrate after decades of retrenchment and cutbacks, but optimists think there just might be a headlight at the end of the tunnel. 

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

On April 1, 1978, a Government of Canada order in council created a new Crown corporation. VIA Rail Canada had been established as a subsidiary of Canadian National Railways (then also publicly-owned) the previous year, but now attained new status as a parent corporation under the Financial Administration Act.  It was the next step in a government initiative to control the cost of supporting passenger rail across Canada, with a primary objective of addressing duplication of services. The intent was for the new corporation to assume full responsibility for the passenger trains operated at that time by CN and CP Rail.  It turned out to be a phased-in process, with the first step being consolidation of marketing. Eventually VIA absorbed other managerial responsibilities, first from CN and later from CP. The new corporation took ownership of passenger rolling stock as well, including locomotives, and train crews eventually became VIA employees.

This year, VIA is holding a celebration to mark the anniversary.  And there actually is a little bit of positive icing to decorate the birthday cake – the first in a long time.  This year’s federal budget included a major commitment to replace the entire VIA fleet in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor, with particular emphasis on the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa triangle. It’s the first significant investment by any government in new passenger rail equipment since the earliest days of the corporation’s history.  For the most part, it’s been a long, sad tale of neglect and retrenchment.

While we don’t mean to rain on VIA’s birthday parade, it is significant to note just how much passenger rail in Canada has deteriorated over the past four decades.  This country’s struggling network now ranks dead last among the G7 nations – even well behind the United States, which hasn’t exactly done a stellar job in keeping up with the rest of the industrialized world either.

It’s interesting – but rather depressing – to compare the substantial VIA timetable that was in effect on April 1, 1978, with the tiny pocket-sized versions that have been appearing in recent years.  (Come to think of it, we haven’t seen a printed copy in a while – perhaps paper editions are no longer relevant in the digital age.)

The System Timetable in effect at VIA’s inception on April 1, 1978, was a far more robust document than what remains today.

Four decades later, Canada’s rail passenger network is but a shadow of its former self, with the long distance services being particularly decimated. In its first year, the new corporation rationalized the transcontinental services, an initiative that appeared to have effected some significant economies with little detrimental effect on service. Passenger train ridership grew from just under five million in 1977 to peak at nearly eight million in 1981. But then came the first of an ongoing series of budget cuts by successive governments – both Liberal and Conservative.  The most dramatic service reductions came in January 1990 under the Mulroney Tories, and the annual passenger count plunged to less than four million.

Forty years on, some fundamental flaws remain in VIA’s very existence.  There still has been no act of Parliament to give the corporation an explicit mandate or legal framework outlining its governance powers and responsibilities, assure it of stable and predictable annual government funding, or allow it any statutory negotiating power with the freight railways over whose tracks most of its trains must travel.  Several governments have made promises, some have even made the first moves toward a VIA Rail Canada Act, and there have been also a number of private member initiatives – but all have either died on the order paper or been defeated by a partisan government majority.

It would be blatantly unfair to blame the decline of passenger rail in Canada entirely on the management of VIA Rail. Some CEOs were political appointees, not particularly well-suited to the challenge, while others left a more positive legacy than most. But for nearly all of its existence, VIA has been treated like an unwanted child by successive governments.  Transport ministers over the past 40 years – with a few notable exceptions – have paid scant attention to passenger rail.

The physical plant and rolling stock have deteriorated, frequencies have been reduced, and schedules have slowed.  On April 1, 1978, the fastest train between Canada’s two largest cities covered the 335-mile route in 4½ hours, with several others requiring only slightly longer.  Today most Toronto-Montreal runs are scheduled for more than five hours, and delays due to freight congestion are endemic.  At VIA’s inception there were two daily transcontinental trains running daily year-round on two different routes between Montreal/Toronto and Vancouver.  Over time that’s been reduced to a single tri-weekly train in peak season.  For more than half the year it only runs twice a week – and its on-time performance is a national embarrassment.  Major population centres like Calgary, Regina, Thunder Bay and Sudbury are no longer served.

This page from the 1977-78 VIA timetable shows two full-service trains daily between Halifax and Montreal, and twice-daily service to and from Sydney.

Closer to home, the 1977-78 timetable showed two full-service trains daily between Halifax and Montreal, plus a third overnight Saint John-Montreal run.  Local services ran twice daily between Sydney and Halifax, and Moncton and Saint John, and there were also daily Halifax-Yarmouth and Moncton-Edmundston RDC routes.  Today we have only a sorry remnant – the tri-weekly Ocean on a considerably slower schedule mostly due to deteriorated track. Even VIA management acknowledges that it isn’t meeting local needs.

The state of affairs in 2018 is really little cause for celebration, but there is renewed hope for better times ahead.  The current government appears to recognize that passenger rail has been badly neglected, and is evidently prepared to make some much-needed investment – at least in the corridor.  But whether they are willing to extend that vision coast-to-coast in a nationwide rebuilding of the “national dream” remains to be seen.

The present management team at VIA is growth-oriented – in the corridor, at least – with a clear focus on customer service.  The CEO would obviously like to be remembered as the guy who rescued passenger rail in Canada from the brink of oblivion.  There’s no question he’s leaving his mark on the corporation, and he actually appears to enjoy interacting with fellow passengers on board the trains – which he rides regularly.  It remains to be seen whether his vision of a dedicated passenger line between Ottawa and Toronto, bypassing CN’s freight-congested Kingston Subdivision, has legs.  The Trudeau government remains non-committal on that question, but has earmarked money to further study the costly proposal, which would use a long-abandoned CP right-of-way through sparsely-populated territory between Smiths Falls and Peterborough.

So, yes, let’s celebrate 40 years of VIA – but do not forget what has disappeared over that time.  Some of what’s been lost we know will never return – but we must continue to advocate, to encourage, and to criticize those in authority whenever the occasion or the opportunity warrants. The endangered state of passenger rail – after all – is the key reason our predecessor organization Transport 2000 was founded back in the 1970s.  And while the pendulum is swinging in a positive direction at the moment, we must not relax our vigilance in the warm glow of 40 birthday candles.

-Ted Bartlett

VIA 6436, one of five F40 locomotives decorated for VIA’s 40th Anniversary, trails on Train 15 at Moncton. When these locomotives first arrived with VIA, they operated on both the Atlantic and Ocean, with both trains running daily. (PHOTO – Tim Hayman)

Source: TAA

Aug 27

Spring-Summer Bulletin now available

By Transport Action Atlantic | Atlantic

“VIA Rail at 40: The good, the bad, and the ugly” – our feature coverage on VIA’s 40th anniversary is just one of many topics featured in this issue of The Bulletin

The Spring-Summer 2018 issue of The Bulletin, Transport Action Atlantic’s twice annual publication, is now available online. This issue’s feature coverage is VIA Rail’s 40th anniversary, a look at where the national passenger railway has ended up after four decades of service, and what the future might have in store. This issue also features additional rail news and commentary, updates on TAA’s advocacy work, marine and air news, transit and intercity bus updates, and much more!

Read on, here: Spring-Summer 2018 Bulletin

Remember, TAA members receive a hard copy of each Bulletin by mail and have the chance to read each issue before anyone else. You can read more about the benefits of membership, and even join today, here: Membership

Source: TAA

May 09

Transit advocate wins 2018 John Pearce Award

By Transport Action Atlantic | Atlantic

Michael Perry presents the 2018 John Pearce Award to Stan Choptiany.
South West New Brunswick Transit Authority chair Stan Choptiany of St. Andrews NB (at right) receives the 2018 John Pearce Award from Michael Perry, a long-time member of Transport Action Atlantic’s board of directors. This year’s outstanding public transportation advocacy award recognizes Mr. Choptiany’s leadership in returning daily bus service to rural Charlotte County.

The chair of the South West New Brunswick Transit Authority is the 2018 winner of Transport Action Atlantic’s John Pearce Award, recognizing outstanding contribution to public transportation advocacy in the region.  Stan Choptiany was honoured at TAA’s annual general meeting, held in Moncton on May 5.

The former mayor of St. Andrews was cited as someone who initially saw the need, was instrumental in establishing the transit authority, and then worked diligently as its chair, guiding it through the labyrinth of government funding sources while tirelessly maintaining contact with potential riders.

“Stan has clearly demonstrated his belief in rural public transit as an essential public service,” said Michael Perry, a long-time member of TAA’s board of directors who presented the award on behalf of the advocacy group.

“During his term as mayor, Stan came to the realization that a growing number of his constituents were prevented from full participation in the resources and benefits of both society and the economy because they lacked the freedom to readily access transportation. These included a broad demographic: seniors no longer wishing to drive, young people, particularly of college student age, people with disabilities, newly-arrived immigrants, and those unable to drive or whose financial situation precluded the purchase of a car. Their growing isolation from a society where mobility is a necessity became an increasing cause of concern, which resulted in many being unable to access timely health care, employment, and post-secondary education.”

The John Pearce Award was created to honour Transport Action Atlantic’s president emeritus, who retired last year from active participation after 40 years of dedicated 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.

“Stan Choptiany’s ‘never-say-die’ leadership ultimately achieved the return of daily bus service linking rural communities in Charlotte County with Saint John,” says TAA president Ted Bartlett.  “Without his tireless efforts, last September’s start-up of RuralLynx almost certainly would not have happened.  We thank him for his contribution, and will continue to support his efforts to make this service a success, and a model for transit in other rural areas of Canada.”

Source: TAA