VIA Rail finally launched its new reservation system on November 18, 2023, after having announced and then deferring several previous target dates over the past year.
The new system brings many improvements, including seat selection, and its launch has been accompanied by changes in pricing, including considerably cheaper flexible “Plus” fares, but there are some changes that are not so welcome. These include the disappearance of Student and Senior discounts, and changes to VIA Rail’s baggage policy (see separate article).
ReserVIA, much like VIA Rail’s fleet, was aging and overdue for replacement. Some of the software at core of the previous ReserVIA system dated back decades. While web interfaces, mobile apps, and other tools have been layered on top of it over the years, upgrading the core to a modern system used by railways around the world was a crucial and complex task. Via’s IT infrastructure had to be refreshed and the new system integrated with ticket offices, travel industry partners, the VIA Preference loyalty program, etc., all without major disruption to passengers. Internally known as “Project Everest,” possibly because a mountain of legacy technology had to be overcome, the project began in September 2019 with the signing of a contract with software provider Sqills, which has since been acquired by Siemens Mobility. The Sqills S3 Passenger software behind the new ReserVIA is widely used in Europe, and the company has adopted the OSDM (Open Sales and Distribution Model) interface standard developed by the UIC to enable through-ticketing between rail and bus operators.
Flexible fares become more affordable, upgrades offered
The biggest positive change in VIA Rail’s fare system is that the flexible Economy Plus and Business Plus fares, rather than being fixed at the highest possible price, are now sold on a sliding scale as trains fill up just like “Escape,” “Economy,” and “Business” fares. This means that its much less expensive to book a flexible fare in case your plans change, which rarely made sense before.
The ability to make changes to other fare classes with a service fee remains, and changes can more easily be made online, including upgrades to business class. The “Treat yourself!” prompt to upgrade to Business Class in the booking confirmation, or when viewing an economy reservation is a smart way for VIA to upsell.
Making a reservation with a mobility device or service animal used to require a phone call or visit to a staffed station. One of the best new features of the new system is that a wide variety of specific needs and accommodations can now be booked online. The range of options – mobility, visual, auditory, service dogs, pets, pet allergies, oxygen tanks – available is impressive. VIA has also created a sign-language video guide to the new system.
Clearer fare and service descriptions
The classes of service and fare types available on each train, and the rules applicable to each fare, are now more clearly displayed during booking process. This includes pictures of the various types of berths and cabins in Sleeper and Prestige class, which will be particularly helpful for first-time long-distance travellers.
VIA Preference program updated, redemptions changed
The VIA Preference loyalty program been one of the best in the industry, and now it is fully integrated with ReserVIA so everyone earns points. Earning rates remain the same, but the redemption process has completely changed. Rather than a set menu of journey segments and numbers of points, the number of points required for a reward ticket is now directly linked to the fare. There are some wins and losses as a result. Big winners include many long-distance redemptions, especially if made well in advance on the western Canada routes, and short-distance trips in the corridor that would have required a lot of points in the old redemption chart. However, longer corridor trips, like travelling all the way from Windsor to Quebec City that were a bargain in the old redemption chart are not longer so attractive.
Additional fees now also earn points and redemptions can be applied to them, but the taxes must now be paid when booking a redemption trip. VIA Rail is hoping to find a workaround for this and is currently offering a 30% discount on all redemptions to offset it, resulting in some excellent deals for regular travellers.
Seat selection and baggage fees
The ability to select a seat when booking, particularly to get a forward-facing seat for people who dislike travelling backwards, has been frequently requested and it is now possible in the new system, once again saving a phone call. At launch, seat selection is free “for a limited time,” and available for all fare classes.
The same system is used to select sleeper accommodation. Rather than selling the upper berth and lower berth as different fare types, a fee applies when selecting a lower berth, and there appear to be some limitations on the ability to change the cabin assigned.
However, it looks as through seat selection will cease to be available for the lowest priced “Escape” economy class fares at some point, and fees may apply based on other classes class of fare. Some seats with tables are marked as “premium” which suggests a surcharge.
With the changes in baggage policy comes the ability to prepay for extra baggage when booking. The user interface for this is tabbed per journey segment, and potentially quite confusing in addition to adding a lot of steps to the booking process, and Transport Action has recommended to VIA that this interface be improved, along with the baggage policy itself.
While other travel operators, including airlines and some motorcoach companies also charge for seat selection and extra baggage, strict baggage policies and the addition of “junk fees” to train fares is unwelcome, and not widespread internationally. Transport Action welcomes VIA Rail’s eleventh-hour decision to waive all baggage fees while it reviews the new policy.
Will commuter discounts and travel passes return?
In preparation for the switchover to the new system, VIA Rail discontinued travel passes, commuter passes, and “biz-pak” fare bundles. The loss of these, over an extended period because the switchover took longer than expected, has been widely lamented and will no doubt have resulted in lost revenues.
In addition to student discounts and extra baggage allowances, students could used to be able to purchase term-time and summer passes for unlimited travel. For tourists and leisure travellers the CanrailPass allowed unlimited travel across all of Canada.
Alongside the options for discount codes, the new reservation system does have a box to enter a pass code when searching for trips, which hopefully means that passes can return soon.
With the reinstatement of trains 82 and 83 which served the London, Woodstock, and Brantford commuter market, and the hoped-for reinstatement of train 651 from Kingston, Belleville, and Cobourg, passengers will be looking for the simplicity of a commuter pass but potentially with more flexibility to accommodate changes in working patterns.
Will intermodal connections be reinstated?
In the decade before the pandemic, VIA Rail had made significant progress in connecting intermodal partners into ReserVIA, including Maritime Bus, RobertQ to Sarnia, and the REGIM shuttle to Gaspe, to offer through ticketing to a wider range of destinations. These connections were also removed in order to simply VIA Rail’s system ahead of the changeover, which unfortunately resulted in the suspension Gaspe shuttle service for summer 2023.
Adding such connections was a laborious process in the old ReserVIA. The new software is able to interface to other reservation systems using OSDM, so it should make it a lot easier to offer through-ticketing in the future, should VIA Rail chose to do so. Mario Péloquin, recently appointed as President and CEO, has spoken frequently about the importance of intermodality, and so we hope to see the new system offering connections that reflect VIA’s role as the backbone of Canada’s public transport network.
Photo courtesy of VIA Rail Canada