On May 6th, 2020, VIA Rail announced that the suspension of the Ocean and Canadian trains due to the coronavirus crisis would be extended until November 1st. With uncertainty as to when both interprovincial and international travel will resume, let alone when leisure travel will return to pre-coronavirus levels, VIA Rail’s move provides a level certainty for people considering booking a trip, and will cause fewer customer services issues and refunds than incrementally extending the suspension.
However, as Canada’s nationwide advocacy group for dependable public transportation, Transport Action Canada is deeply concerned by this announcement. Trains and long-distance motor coaches provide a lifeline to many communities along their routes, and although tourist revenues usually help to support the cost of providing long-distance train services for Canadians, and even though passenger numbers are down due to travel restrictions and public health measures, these communities should not be left completely isolated.
The motor coach industry is also under pressure. The Canadian small businesses that have stepped up to operate bus routes abandoned by Greyhound in 2018 have been proactive in keeping essential services running while implementing physical distancing and other health measures, but these businesses cannot be expected to bear these additional costs and reduced revenues indefinitely. Some operators have already suspended services due to financial pressure, and Greyhound has annulled the rump of its routes in Ontario. We believe government should act to support Canadian motor coach companies and to ensure that the progress made in restoring Canada’s motor coach network is not lost.
We have written to the federal Minister of Transport, the Hon. Marc Garneau MP, calling upon the government to release emergency funding to support both motor coach services and VIA Rail Canada’s long-distance train services through the coronavirus crisis, and to ensure they are able to support our economy and communities as we recover from it. Ensuring that everyone has access to sustainable and dependable public transportation is going to be the key to a green recovery that benefits all Canadians.
We are pleased that train service for essential journeys is being maintained on the Winnipeg-Churchill route, in northern Quebec, and to White River, in addition to once-daily services in the Quebec-Windsor corridor. The Churchill train is currently being operated without sleeper-class accommodation, but with a Chateau sleeping car providing overnight accommodation for the train crew. We would hope to see a similar basic service restored to other communities along the Montreal to Halifax, Toronto to Vancouver, and Jasper to Prince Rupert routes well before November 1st.
At the same time as announcing the extended service suspension, VIA Rail revealed that in recent weeks some new structural issues have been discovered with the heritage stainless steel fleet, which will need to be addressed alongside the ongoing Heritage Modernization Program. This program, started in 2018, includes mechanical, electrical and interior renovations for all the long-distance coaches originally built for Canadian Pacific, plus additional coaches of similar design later acquired from US railroads. Seventeen of the coaches are also receiving accessibility upgrades at Bombardier’s La Pocatière plant.
The exact nature of the issue has not been publicly detailed, but VIA Rail will be using the service suspension to accelerate the work required to resolve it, and they have informed Transport Action that they plan to complete inspections of the entire stainless steel fleet by November 1st, with enough cars in service for the winter schedule, and to have all repairs completed in time for peak summer service 2021. The additional work will be completed at the Toronto and Montreal Maintenance Centres.
The emergence of such issues in cars that have been in daily main line service across Canada, logging millions of kilometres over 65 years, is hardly surprising. The Budd-built stainless steel equipment has still proven longer lasting than the much newer LRC coaches or Renaissance trains. The silver (and blue) lining to the service disruption will be that this issue doesn’t cause a separate disruption, and the classic stainless steel cars will be able to continue providing transcontinental service, connecting Canadians and serving visitors, for many years to come.
Transport Action continues to recommend that the Crown Corporation be authorized to acquire 30 new-built stainless steel cars to supplement the heritage fleet, replace the worn-out Renaissance cars, and provide universally accessible sleeper accommodation on all long-distance routes.
Photo: The Canadian – Claude Robidoux / VIA Rail Canada