VIA Rail Canada was to announce service cuts at its May 29, 2012 Annual Public Meeting. The announcement has apparently been postponed to June 27, 2012, after Parliament has adjourned for the summer recess. This is similar to the manner in which VIA Rail service was slashed on previous occasions – do the dirty work when Parliament is not sitting and the media is not focused on day-to-day government actions.
And, once again, the service cuts would disproportionately affect the eastern and western long distance trains.
The 1990 service cuts reduced services in the west from 14 trains per direction per week (daily service over two routes) to three (tri-weekly service on one route). This bare-bones service level is to be further reduced to two during the winter months. VIA’s transcontinental route should offer a minimum of daily service, with additional offerings between major city-pairs. Service should also be available on the southern CPR route from Winnipeg to Vancouver. VIA Rail Canada is not VIA Rail Corridor; it is supposed to serve all Canadians.
Service cuts are not the only way of dealing with operating costs. Other options are:
• Improve network connectivity.
• Partnerships to increase ridership and revenue.
• More efficient operating practices.
Consider the Skeena and Canadian, both of which serve Jasper. The Skeena used to depart Edmonton in the late afternoon, travel overnight through Jasper to Prince George and daytime from Prince George to Prince Rupert. Currently, it runs from Jasper to Prince George daytime, leaving Jasper minutes before the arrival of the train from Toronto and Edmonton. It stays overnight in Prince George and then goes daytime to Prince Rupert. On the return trip, it arrives in Jasper just after the train for Edmonton and Toronto has left. It still takes two train sets, but there are no sleeping cars (passengers are responsible for their Prince George accommodation). VIA treats this as a tourist train and not part of a passenger rail network. How much additional ridership and revenue would be generated if the Skeena and Canadian made connections in Jasper?
Or could VIA increase ridership and revenue on the Skeena, if it worked with local agencies and First Nations to improve transportation options for local communities along its route? The Skeena’s route parallels B.C.’s Highway of 16, the so-called Highway of Tears. A major issue for residents is the inability to travel unless one has automobile access. For those who don’t, hitchhiking is considered a viable option in spite of the danger potential. VIA partnerships with other agencies in the corridor could improve the lives of local residents and VIA’s economic and social bottom-line.
Operationally, VIA could make its well-used Corridor services more effective by using cab control cars as the rear car. Thus, VIA could eliminate the cost and delay required to turn train consists in Montréal, Québec City, Niagara Falls, Sarnia and Windsor. This is common practice on other intercity and commuter rail operations. Turning trains requires additional time, labour and trackage, all of which increase operating costs. Eliminating the practice would reduce VIA’s costs, speed-up train turn-around time and have trains spending more time carrying passengers.
VIA Rail Canada needs to be the Canadian rail passenger network dedicated to serving Canadians efficiently, responsively and cost effectively. The key is firmly establishing VIA as a ‘real’ Crown Corporation with legislated powers, responsibilities and accountability to Parliament. The current ‘non-entity’ is governed by various Orders in Council, micro-managed by Transport Canada and Treasury Board and subject to the vagaries of anti-rail bureaucrats. With a properly legislated VIA, the company could concentrate on building a rail passenger network that integrates with other carriers – local and intercity transit, ferries and remote air services – and serves all Canadians.