M. Marc Laliberté
President and Chief Executive Officer
VIA Rail Canada
VIA Rail Head Office
3 Place Ville Marie, Ste 500
Montreal, QC H3B 2C9
January 28, 2013
As leader of the Green Party, I have long been a strong advocate for passenger rail. Prior to a life in politics, I was one of VIA’s best customers, frequently travelling the Ottawa to Halifax route, as well as several times a month the Ottawa-Toronto and Toronto to London routes. Since 1993, I have managed to make at least one trip a year from Vancouver to Toronto. As an MP, I continue to promote the train and travel by rail often.
My grandfather used to repeat the saying, “this is no way to run a railroad.” I think he could have been speaking of current VIA Rail management.
I say this without intending any disrespect, but I will set out what I am seeing transpire and ask for your response. I will publish both in an effort to increase public awareness of the challenges facing VIA Rail.
I am mindful of the huge level of challenges VIA Rail faces. The structure of rail ownership, in which freight owns the tracks and VIA has to abide signals forcing passenger rail to the sidings to allow freight to pass by, the cost of diesel, the rising costs of pensions, the recession, the on-going problems with the Renaissance cars purchased from the UK, among other challenges, all make it difficult to run a profitable railroad. The fact that, unlike Amtrak in the US, Canada has no legislative framework for running VIA is not helpful.
It needs to be argued that on-going investments in VIA are essential. For example, we really need VIA investment in the E and N Railway on Vancouver Island. I know a request for VIA support is outstanding. Many of VIA’s routes are not serviced by buses. It is essential that any modern country have an efficient and well-run passenger rail option. The airports receive government support and to a much larger extent, so do our highways. We desperately need a national transportation policy that addresses all transport components in some sensible public policy framework. The fact that we have none of these things is not the fault of VIA Rail management.
So, permit me to focus on recent cuts to service and changes to policy that appear designed to drive away your customer base.
The cuts have received some media coverage. We are now down to only two trips a week from Vancouver to Toronto in the off-season and only three a week for “The Ocean,” in the heavily travelled Halifax to Montreal route. Cuts to service in the Windsor-Quebec Corridor have been especially severe in the London and Sarnia routes, but fewer stops between Ottawa and Toronto will also lose VIA business. These cuts, of course, fall after devastating reduction in services in the 1980s, when we lost many important rail links.
Moving from these huge cuts to matters of policy, I wish to itemize changes in policy I have observed over the last year.
My criticisms are intended to be helpful. I am very fearful that the direction of investments in improved rail cars and investments in new stations on the Windsor Quebec corridor give rise to concerns that VIA may shed its Toronto to Vancouver and Montreal to Halifax routes altogether. The loss of the Calgary to Vancouver route in the 1980s to the private sector for tourism is not something Canadians would ever want to see happen again. We need a cross-country passenger rail service. We need to keep it, invest in it and improve it.
Please consider me an ally in any efforts to improve rail service. I look forward to your response.
Elizabeth May, O.C., M.P.
Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands
Leader of the Green Party of Canada