VIA Rail sets out vision for growth in 2030 plan

By Transport Action | Intercity Rail and Bus

May 28
VIA Rail P42, Venture and F40 locomotives pose side by side

VIA Rail Canada’s president and CEO, Mario Péloquin, unveiled the Crown corporation’s new strategic plan “VIAction 2030” on Thursday May 23, 2024. Speaking to an event hosted by the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, Mario Péloquin said his objective was “to make VIA Rail the champion of the passenger train”, no less, and that Canada was at last joining the USA and Europe in investing in rail passenger service.

Harry Gow, past president of Transport Action Canada, attended the launch event and reported that the plan was presented clearly and without the usual jargon of corporate executives.

The plan and the accompanying “It Takes a Train” video presentation can be found on VIA rail’s corporate website at:

This strategic plan was presented as an ambitious blueprint for both growth and sustainability, building upon $3 billion of government investment in passenger rail over the past decades, including the replacement of the Quebec-Windsor corridor fleet, and the government’s commitment this spring to the replacement of the long-distance fleet.

The document published by VIA Rail is strong on ambition although light on specific details, which are likely to follow in the annual update the VIA’s Corporate Plan later is the year. Many of the goals set out in the announcement were the kind of objectives that ought to be shared by most major corporations, such as “foster a high-performance culture,” “uphold the highest environmental standards,” and “ensure our workforce is representative of the diversity of the customers and communities we serve.”

The press release accompanying the announcement detailed more specific targets:

  • Reducing VIA Rail’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% compared to 2005.
  • Generating savings equivalent to 15% of VIA Rail’s operating deficit.
  • Increasing passenger capacity by 18%.

No baseline year was stated for the deficit or capacity goals. If 2023 is the baseline year for deficit reduction, this could represent a target of some $50M in savings and new revenues. This target which could be somewhat concerning if it causes the already lean organization to further reduce staffing or defer maintenance on station buildings and other assets. VIA Rail fares are already widely considered expensive, so there may be little room to raise ticket prices or add other charges without further deterring ridership. Offering more attractive fares wherever possible may be a better approach to filling seats and maximizing both impact and revenue.

Passenger capacity deployed has also yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, with VIA Rail’s service levels in 2023 running about 15% lower than in 2019 due to suspended train frequencies in the Corridor and shorter consists for the Churchill route. While some of these issues are already being addressed with the reinstatement of trains 82 and 83, plus the introduction of train 641, Transport Action hopes that the goal is to deliver a significant increase in capacity relative to 2019, utilizing the bidirectional capability of the new Venture fleet in the corridor and the redeployment of stainless-steel cars from the Corridor to increase economy class capacity on long-distance and remote service routes.

A welcome pivot back to integrated mobility

After several years in which we saw the ability by purchase interline connecting fares on GO Transit, Maritime Bus, and other carriers disappear from VIA’s reservation system, also resulting in the complete cancellation of the RÉGÎM shuttle connecting the Gaspésie with the Ocean at Campbellton, the plan demonstrates a refreshing commitment to intermodal connectivity:

“VIA Rail aims to position itself as a unifying force for integrated mobility in the country, particularly by contributing to the integration of its stations with the cities’ various transportation networks and by helping densify surrounding neighbourhoods.”

Mario Péloquin cited Berlin Hbf as a model for VIA in his remarks; where no less than four types of rail systems come together, including Deutsche Bahn’s regional and high-speed intercity trains, in one central place.

Transport Action Canada believes that passenger rail should be the backbone of a Canada-wide sustainable transportation network and looks forward to seeing VIA Rail take steps to advance this vision.

The HFR elephant in the room

The plan is silent on the subject of High Frequency Rail, possibility because the government decision to take the project out of VIA Rail’s hands and seek a private-sector development partner and operator has pushed the probable implementation timeline well into the next decade. VIA Rail Canada is therefore left unable to make long-term plans for its corridor services, and unsure how it will be expected to manage the remaining long-distance and remote services without the economics of scale and operational synergies with the Corridor.

When asked about HFR at the launch event, Mario Péloquin said that while VIA will be  ready to make necessary efforts to deal with the new situation no one knows what a new operator will do on its side.  

Operating a larger number of trains, serving more Canadians, and thereby making better use of fixed assets like stations, and being able to reliably operate them on time so that equipment utilization can be maximized, is the only sustainable route to better financial performance. This was VIA Rail’s objective when it first proposed HFR in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, and this is equally true of long-distance services. Restoring daily departures for the Ocean, the Canadian, and other services would make taking these trains more practical and relevant to communities along their routes.

Long-Distance fleet timeline

In a follow-up interview about the strategic plan with International Rail Journal, Mario Péloquin also revealed that VIA Rail expects to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the fourth quarter of 2024 for approximately 40 locomotives and 300 coaches, with the intent that the first new pieces of equipment could be delivered with five years and the fleet completely replaced within a decade.

Mario Péloquin will also give a presentation to the Toronto Region Board of Trade on June 20, 2024.

Image courtesy of VIA Rail Canada