In response to the disruption of train services due to the winter storm on December 23rd, and due to the CN derailment near Grafton, Ontario between December 24th and 26th, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities invited VIA Rail executives and Transport Action Atlantic president Tim Hayman to testify before the committee on January 26th.
The hearings began with VIA Rail’s President and CEO, Martin R. Landry, once again apologizing unreservedly for the disruption experienced by passengers, and their waiting friends and relatives, and thanking employees for their efforts during the many hours for which trains remained stranded or cancelled.
Landry reiterated that VIA Rail is voluntarily providing full refunds and a 100% travel credit for stranded passengers and full refunds for passengers on cancelled trains. He also confirmed that VIA Rail has hired external experts (international consultant firm Roland Berger) to review its performance over the 4-day period.
Rita Toporowski, Chief Customer Officer at VIA Rail, detailed the procedures for distributing water and snacks during a delay, including distribution of free food after an extended delay, and calling for delivery of additional food if the train is stopped at a location that can be safely accessed such as a station. Charging customers on board stranded train #55 for food was a deviation from this procedure, and VIA Rail will refund those transactions.
Details that emerged during the hearings included that two attempts were made by CN crews to reach train #55. The first crew was involved in a road traffic accident due to the whiteout conditions. The second crew did reach the train, but judged that the wind was too strong to safety remove the tree from the roof of the train, so they were redeployed to assist in clearing another tree that had fallen in front of train #69.
Communications between CN and VIA Rail were questioned, including the message received from CN that the tree had been removed, which led to VIA Rail sending an incorrect email to passengers who could still see, from the windows, that the tree was still there. VIA Rail did not seek to place blame on CN for the situation on the Kingston Subdivision, but noted that there had been no problems on the tracks it owns, citing its vegetation management practices, snow clearing procedures and pre-emptive deployment of backup power generation.
Lines of communication between the VIA police, CN police, and local emergency services were also discussed, with concerns raised by MPs about the potential response time during the storm if the incident had been more serious, for example including loss of heat and power on the train. With no witness from the local emergency services present that may be a question for a future hearing.
Somewhat confusingly, these hearings were combined with the Committee’s review of Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations in the wake of the flight cancellations, delays, and loses of hundreds of items of luggage over the holiday period. MPs asked whether passenger rights regulations should be extended to cover passenger trains, Landry replied that VIA would welcome such a discussion, which should appropriately also involve the host railways. Tim Hayman, when asked a similar question, also welcomed the idea, noting that legislative protection of rail passenger rights would extend to other passenger railways and could be particularly important if the government proceeds with outsourcing High Frequency Rail operations to a private sector partner.
Conservative Party Transport Critic Mark Strahl pressed the question of when Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra first communicated directly with Martin R. Landry about the crisis. VIA Rail management had been in regular communication with both the Minister’s office and Transport Canada officials throughout the Christmas period, as appropriate to the operational and technical nature of the process of restoring services and recovering from the storm, but a direct call with the Minister did not take place until January 11th.
Canadian National declined an invitation to attend the hearings and several MPs expressed displeasure at their absence, noting that there were questions they would like to ask the host railway. CN submitted a written brief, and may appear at a future date. The written brief focussed on the derailment of December 24th, and lacks any discussion of the situation on the Mount Joli Subdivision or CN’s efforts to dispatch crews to remove the fallen trees on December 23rd.