The Ocean train serving the Maritimes is facing multiple threats to its successful continued operation, and its ability to continue serving the public transportation needs of Canadians in the Maritimes and those who want to visit the Maritimes.
The Ocean has served the region for more the 115 years, and not so long ago, one could board a train in Halifax in the afternoon, and arrive relaxed in Vancouver four days later. It survived the loss of the Atlantic and other passenger trains in the Maritimes, but suffered from a cut in frequency in 2012 and narrowly escaped severe disruption when Canadian National proposed abandoning the rail line between Campbellton and Moncton in 2014. It continues to serve as a backbone for a network of feeder bus services that provide public transport throughout the region, and it is a vital connection to Quebec, Montreal, and the rest of Canada.
It is therefore unfortunate that three challenges which have been known about for several years have remained unresolved, and now threaten to unleash travel chaos in the region.
The Renaissance (“Ren”) equipment currently used on the Montreal-Halifax “Ocean” was built in Britain in the 1990s, and was originally intended for cross-channel overnight services to Europe. These services were never commenced, so the fleet sat idle for several years before being picked up by the Canadian government in 2000 for the bargain price of $130 million for 132 cars, in various states of completion.
A total of 27 sleepers and six service/lounge cars were initially assigned to the Ocean, together with coaches, dining, baggage, and transition cars to allow the fleet to couple with standard North American rolling stock. Originally designed for high platforms, narrower clearances, and less extreme weather, the trains had many teething troubles when they entered service in Canada in 2002, but nevertheless have proved a useful addition to the VIA Rail fleet over the last two decades, even though they have proven more expensive to operate and maintain than the stainless steel equipment.
In 2012, the Ocean was reduced from six days per week to three, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. However, this resulted in a severe drop in ridership and a $4.6 million drop in revenue. With fewer cars needed for the reduced schedule and funding tight, equipment in need of repair began to be withdrawn. Of the five Renaissance consists originally deployed in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, only two remain operational and plans to refurbish the remaining cars were abandoned. Twenty-nine unfinished car shells that sat in storage in Thunder Bay for many years were scrapped once it became clear that the Renaissance fleet did not have a long-term future.
Two derailments in 2019 damaged some of the remaining coaches and sleepers beyond economical repair, leaving VIA Rail without enough operable equipment to form two complete trains, so the Ocean is currently operating with one Ren consist and one consist of mixed Ren and stainless steel equipment.
Had the fleet been deployed in in Europe, plans for life-cycle replacement would have long since been underway. Canada’s conditions mean that corrosion of the mild-steel car bodies has been accelerated, further reducing the life expectancy of the equipment. The fleet is now life-expired despite the best efforts of VIA Rail’s maintenance staff, and will have to be withdrawn before 2022.
VIA Rail also has looming infrastructure problem on its hands in Halifax. Effective November 1, 2020, access to the balloon track at the Halterm container terminal adjacent to the downtown station will be cut off, leaving VIA Rail with no place to turn trains for their trip back to Montreal. The nearest wye is some 60 miles away in Truro.
The waterfront property is a federal government asset, owned, like VIA Rail, by the people of Canada, but leased to Singapore-based PSA International. That operator has apparently decided that the real estate is too valuable to keep the loop track in place.
VIA Rail has known about the pending closure of the Halterm loop for several years, and obtained an extension in the deadline from 2018 to November 2020 with the support of Transport Canada. The fact that the Renaissance trains can not be operated without the turning loop, largely because the single-direction seating on the coaches, has also been flagged in corporate plans since 2018.
The latest issue of the Crown corporation’s 5-year Corporate Plan, recently posted on its website, notes that this issue is “illustrative of the inherent shortcomings of the TSA (train service agreement) and the relationships with infrastructure providers.”
This, and many similar problems, including VIA rail’s inability to address poor on-time performance caused by host railroads across the country, has made the need for proper enabling legislation and a Passenger Rail Act in Canada very clear. Neither is it acceptable that a corporation leasing a public asset is bullying a federal Crown corporation into submission and threatening the very existence of what little passenger rail service Atlantic Canada has left.
The proposed course of action in VIA Rail’s 2019 corporate plan remains loosely worded:
For the Ocean, the loss of the Halifax rail loop will eliminate the use of currently operated Renaissance equipment, which cannot function in push-pull (bi-directional) configuration. Consequently, VIA Rail is planning the following strategic changes:
Calibrating these services appropriately will better meet these tourist and regional / intercity traveller markets, while leveraging the inherent appeal of the iconic status and rolling stock of the Canadian, VIA Rail could provide a more relevant product and better serve Canadians.
An eastern intercity service has been mooted since 2015 as a response to the service gaps created by the Ocean service reduction in 2012.
However, with only a few months left before the operating plan for November 2020 has to be communicated to the host railroads in July, no firm plans have been made known, nor has there been any stakeholder engagement about the proposed service changes, although VIA Rail has confirmed that 65-year-old diesel railcars (RDCs) have been successfully tested in the region, suggesting that they might be deployed on the eastern intercity services. One pair of these railcars which was been refurbished and fitted with low emission diesel engines and an accessibility lift in 2011 is currently available, and two more pairs of railcars are stored awaiting refurbishment.
An eastern intercity service would require the completion of track maintenance and upgrading on the Newcastle subdivision between Bathurst and Campbellton, raising track speed for just 30 mph today to at least 60 mph in order to offer respectable journey times. VIA Rail quoted a figure of just $6.3 million for these track upgrades in their 2019 corporate plan, which represents the bare minimum necessary. Transport Action has asked the government to earmark $50 million for infrastructure upgrades throughout region to support daily services, and no investment has been announced to date.
In the 2016 plan, it was also suggested that the introduction of eastern intercity services would be accompanied by a further reduction in Ocean frequencies to twice weekly, which would certainly not be acceptable in a region that has been calling for daily service to be reinstated.
No plans have been announced to cover the shortage of equipment that will result from the withdrawal of the Renaissance fleet in a way that would provide a regular service between the Maritimes and Quebec and the rest of Canada.
There should be enough coaches to provide seated services, thanks to the release of stainless steel coaches from the Quebec-Windsor corridor services once new equipment arrives to replace the also life-expired LRC coaches in 2022, and these coaches are configured for bi-directorial operation.
Contracts to refurbish the HEP1 stainless steel long-distance coach fleet, including providing wheelchair lifts, were awarded to Bombardier and CAD Rail in 2018 with expected completion in 2020, however this schedule appears to be slipping. VIA Rail’s own maintenance centres are also refitting the HEP2 fleet, albeit with corridor-type seats that would not provide a comfortable long-distance ride.
While there are a small number of Chateau sleepers available to be deployed in the east, these are in serious need of updating and reupholstery, which the Manor sleepers used primarily on the Canadian received a decade ago. None of these cars, nor the Park dome cars, have accessible bedrooms.
Following a Supreme Court judgement (Council of Canadians with Disabilities v. Via Rail Canada Inc. (2007)), two of the Renaissance sleepers were refitted to provide fully accessible bedrooms. For this equipment to be retired without a plan to continue to provide accessible accommodation is likely to be viewed with displeasure by the courts, as well as vastly inconveniencing Canadians who rely upon accessible accommodation to travel.
The equipment shortage in the east is compounded by the lengthened schedules imposed upon the Canadian by CN. After the 2008 schedule change, an additional train consist was required to continue providing three services per week, and with the additional lengthening to more than 94 hours in 2019, four train consists can’t even provide service three days a week west of Edmonton.
Therefore, the federal government should be allocating up to $120 million in funding for VIA Rail to order 27 sleepers and three dining cars to fill the gap in the long-distance fleet. By making this equipment fully compatible with the existing stainless steel fleet, new fully accessible sleepers could also be deployed to other long-distance services, and the mix of new equipment could include both lower-cost berths for single night trips, family cabins, and possibly a premium option for tourists from cruise ships docking at Halifax. This would enable VIA Rail to genuinely “calibrate services appropriately” nationwide.
As if these problems weren’t enough to give both VIA Rail managers and passenger rail advocates sleepless nights, the Chignecto Isthmus, the narrow neck of land that connects Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, also represents a looming crisis that the federal government must urgently address.
Climate change is resulting in increasingly high tides in the Bay of Fundy, to the point where the rail and highway links between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are threatened. In times of exceptionally high spring tides and storm surges, the CN railbed actually serves as a dyke, preventing floodwaters reaching the four-lane Trans Canada Highway that runs along side, together with electricity transmission lines and pipeline infrastructure. Together, rail and road carry an estimated $20 billion worth of commerce annually across the isthmus, and It is estimated that flooding at this location would cost the Canadian economy $50 million per day.
This problem was highlighted in a study in 2012 by the Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions Association, and in 2015 the waters came within a couple of centimetres of overtopping the railway. Should water begin to flow over the railbed, the situation would deteriorate rapidly as ballast is washed away.
Significant portions of both Sackville and Amherst lie on the flood plain, and both towns are taking the issue and potential impact on their communities seriously. Sackville Mayor John Higham has established a roundtable of councillors and citizens to keep the issue front and centre, and a very well-attended public forum was held on February 1st 2020, where Amherst Mayor David Kogon also addressed the issue of the rail line.
Until adequate sea defences are built to protect the Chignecto Isthmus and adjacent communities, we are just one big storm away from a very disruptive washout. The United Nations has identified this as the second most vulnerable location in North America, after New Orleans.
All of these problems could have been avoided by more proactive engagement and leadership from the federal government and Transport Canada. Work to defend the Chignecto Isthmus against storm surges should have already started. Instead there are only discussions about a study. The order for replacement equipment should have already been placed, because the condition of the Rens has been known about and clearly communicated in VIA Rail’s reports and corporate plans for several years. The reconfiguration of the trackage in the Halifax container terminal and resulting loss of the turning loop has also been in the cards for a long time. All of these issues would have been much easier to address far earlier, rather than allowing them to fester for long enough to become crises, but what’s done is done.
Our political leaders will be judged upon is what they do about it now, and we strongly suggest that tangible actions start immediately to avoid a highly embarrassing service failure.
The one positive story emerging the Maritimes is that the Quebec government is making the investments necessary to restore the line to Gaspe, which should allow passenger services to return by 2025. If the Chaleur to Gaspe is reinstated as an overnight train from Montreal, then VIA Rail will need to find another set of long-distance equipment, further reinforcing the case for ordering new sleeping cars.
With rail passenger numbers rising across the world as both domestic travellers and tourists question the environmental impact, hassle, and discomfort of flying, the investments needed to secure the future of a high quality, reliable passenger rail network in the Maritimes will certainly not be in vain.
You can help turn this situation around by reaching out to your Member of Parliament, or writing a letter you your local newspaper to keep these issues in the spotlight.
 VIA Rail’s “HEP1” stainless steel fleet consists of former Canadian Pacific equipment built for transcontinental services including the Canadian in 1955 and some near-identical coaches acquired from US railroads and rebuilt by VIA for long distance services. The “HEP2” fleet are a collection of ex-Amtrak stainless steel cars acquired and refitted between 1989 and 1993 as a cheap alternative to placing a follow-on order for new LRC equipment from Bombardier, contributing to a 35-year gap in new equipment orders.