Victory: Early morning train from Kingston to Toronto reinstated

By Transport Action | Intercity Rail and Bus

Apr 29
VIA Rail P42 locomotive 904 arriving at Toronto Union Station, with a GO train alongside

After four years of service suspension and vigorous campaigning for reinstatement, passengers from Kingston, Belleville, Cobourg, and Port Hope will once again have an early morning train to Toronto, starting on May 27, 2024, with VIA Rail’s summer timetable changes.

This is a victory for Transport Action members, local residents, councillors, mayors, and MPs Phillip Lawrence (Northumberland – Peterborough South) and Ryan Williams (Bay of Quinte) who have kept up the pressure to bring the morning train back to the lakeshore route.

We are pleased that VIA Rail has now been able to respond to this need for service, albeit with a twist: Rather than reinstating train 651 on its former schedule, the train will start in Ottawa and be numbered 641.

The schedule of the new train 641 is as follows:

Train 641  
StationDeparture Time
Ottawa4:19 a.m.
Fallowfield4:38 a.m.
Smiths Falls5:05 a.m.
Brockville5:35 a.m.
Kingston6:18 a.m.
Belleville7:00 a.m.
Cobourg7:35 a.m.
Port Hope7:44 a.m.
Toronto8:48 a.m.

Starting the new service in Ottawa means not having to stable a train or arrange crew accommodation in Kingston overnight and creates a new option for passengers east of Kingston to arrive in Toronto in time for the workday; but it comes at the expense of opening Ottawa station very early.

The new departure will not call at Napanee, Trenton Junction, Oshawa, or Guildwood; and will also only operate Monday through Thursday, at least initially. VIA Rail already operates ten Ottawa-Toronto departures on Fridays, and is constrained by the allowed number of paths across the junction with CPKC at Smiths Falls.

To balance the schedule and equipment rotation, lunchtime train #644 from Toronto to Ottawa, which recently operated Friday to Sunday only, will now return to operating daily.

Winning back passengers

Initial reaction to the new service announcement has been positive, but VIA Rail’s announcement suggests that the success and longevity of the new service will depend on ridership returning:

It is important to note that over the coming months, VIA Rail will be closely monitoring the public response to this new early-morning departure and will implement adjustments as necessary, based on ridership and actual use.

VIA Rail Canada

Unfortunately, after a hiatus of several years, many of the passengers who used train 651 to commute will have been compelled to make other arrangements to retain their jobs, as we warned in our letter to Minister Omar Alghabra in December 2021. It may therefore take several more years, not months, to win back the ridership that has been lost.

VIA Rail used to offer commuter passes which reduced the cost per trip for regular users of such services. These were withdrawn along with other multi-ride fares in preparation for the launch of the new reservation system last year, and they have yet to be reinstated. Therefore all fares on the new service will be subject to dynamic pricing. We hope to see commuter passes return because reliably good value fares will be critical to the success of the new frequency.

Scope for improvement

With arrival in Toronto scheduled for 08:48, rather than 08:25 for train 651 before 2019, the new timings don’t leave much leeway for workers whose day starts at 9am, and operating Monday to Thursday is likely to be an issue for employees whose work schedule is not completely flexible. The trend since the pandemic has been that service jobs that are suitable for work from home have allowed greater flexibility in planning occasional days in the office, but transit ridership growth has come from people whose customer-facing or support roles require personal presence and a more rigid schedule. A daily service, arriving in Toronto at least 15 minutes earlier, would serve passengers with a broader spectrum of working patterns.

The decision to make reinstate daily departures for train 644 in the early afternoon, rather than reinstating train 650 as an evening departure from Toronto after 7pm, means the last eastbound train leaves at 18.32. While many commuters on 651 took earlier trains home, the availability of a later train in is important insurance in the event of a meeting or project running over time, or for commuters working a later.

Transport Action continues to call for implementation of the “Kingston Hub” concept promised alongside High Frequency Rail, with early morning and later evening trips supported by a crew base and train stabling in Kingston.

Return of the Cavalier?

Rail advocates with long memories will recall the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto night trains, known as the Cavalier, which fell victim to the 1990 cuts before briefly being reinstated as the Montreal-Toronto Enterprise in the early 2000s. The resurgence of night trains in Europe suggests the there may now be a more of a market for such an opportunity to avoid flights and hotel nights, and the new schedule of 641 would be compatible with running through from an evening departure from Montreal. Transport Action would welcome the return of such a service, which would also offer a much later evening departure from Toronto. However, VIA Rail is critically short of sleeping cars, at least until new long-distance fleet deliveries begin, with which to equip such a night train.

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