Letter to VIA Rail’s CEO regarding the recent cuts to service

On Thursday, February 28th, 2013 in Letters

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

Dear M. Laliberté,

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.

  1. In the past, when a train was full, new cars were added. Given these cuts, the least one would expect as policy would be that the drastically reduced number of trains should add cars to accommodate more passengers.  Yet, the policy appears to be that “Sold Out” notices are posted when in the past, more cars would have been added.  I recall being on the Halifax to Montreal route some years ago when there were 700 passengers.   Why cut service in half on popular routes and then further deny service by refusing to add more cars for the few trips that remain?
  2. Another area of new policy that appears designed to drive away business is the refusal to wait for a connecting train to allow passengers to make the connection.  Airlines do this.  Why has VIA Rail now decided that an on-time start is more important than waiting for as little as 5 or 10 minutes to allow passengers to complete their journey?
  3. Why is VIA trying to make it harder to buy tickets at the station and trying to drive passengers to purchase on-line, even offering discounts (and losing the company more money)?  It seems another way to shut down stations and service at stations, but a loss of service runs the risk of  losing more business.  VIA needs to increase its customer base.
  4. Why has VIA decided to refuse to allow passengers to carry their bags on board trains where there is ample baggage space?  The new “carry-on” rules work toward undoing one of rail’s single largest advantages as compared to air travel – ease of boarding and no hassles.  Requiring bags to be weighed and then insisting on tagging bags over 50 lbs and taking them to the baggage car, requires passengers to come earlier.  I witnessed a man trying to board VIA 1 have his bag taken from him (he was all set to carry it on board himself) and then he was told his bag would arrive at his destination on a different train, hours later than his arrival. It is absolutely illogical.  No one is asked to pay more, so it is not a matter of the weight of the bag and the drain on fuel as it would be on an airline. There is ample baggage space in the VIA 1 cars.
  5. Lastly, I am concerned for the impact these changes (and the lay-offs) are having on morale of VIA staff.  One member of staff dealing with baggage told me they are punished if they allow any passengers carrying their own bags to sneak through the weight line-up. There are people watching them all the time, he said.  The on-board train crew is fearful and demoralized.  Another clear competitive advantage at VIA has always been corporate loyalty and a high level of personal service.  Now what I hear from train personnel (across Canada, and in station and on board staff) is “I am just waiting to get my pension… I used to love working here, now I am just counting the days…”.

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

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  • jvd897

    Fantastic letter, Ms. May, and thanks for mentioning the situation here in Sarnia.

  • zirguy

    Great letter however your comments on the Baggage policy need a bit of info. The baggage policy was introduced (weight limits) as a safety issue for staff not because of space. I had thought the same as you until a lovely employee informed me of the many injuries suffered by staff due to overweight bags. Therefore costing Via a great amount of money with WSIB claims and employees being off injured. To put it in some perspective: we carry our bags, once on and once off because we are capable. On Train employees are asked to lift heavy bags on and off many times in a single trip.

    • http://www.facebook.com/graham.nasby Graham Nasby

      The new baggage policy at VIA RAIL is very stupid. This could have been easily resolved by having staff adopt a policy of being able to refuse to help people with overweight bags – they have to carry them themselves. Instead VIA has managed to just piss off most of their customers.

      original poster wrote “”The baggage policy was introduced (weight limits) as a safety issue for staff not because of space. I had thought the same as you until a lovely employee informed me of
      the many injuries suffered by staff due to overweight bags. Therefore
      costing Via a great amount of money with WSIB claims and employees being
      off injured.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.agnew.589 Jim Agnew

    Thanks for taking a stand for the railways-unfortunately, we now live in an age in which “speed” tends to trump “scenery”/ Having said that, I find it interesting that both a private company AND CP Rail manage to turn a profit on runs between Calgary and Vancouver. As MP from Vancouver Island, I”m a little surprised that you also didn’t single out the recent cancellation of the railliner service between Victoria and Nanaimo.

    As noted in a post below, another writer has mentioned a totally ridiculous situation regarding the lack of “through” service between Toronto and Chicago-unfortunately the issue seems to rest more with AMTRAK than VIA. The one daily train leaves Port Huron at 6 AM and returns at 11:30 PM, making any connection to/from Toronto impractical. In fairness to AMTRAK, one has to wonder how many people would use an “off-peak” train connecting Port Huron and Chicago-it’s a 6 hour trip. I was shocked to discover that VIA runs only one through train from Toronto to Sarnia, arriving at 10:00 PM. All other trips between Toronto and Sarnia involve transfers to a bus at London. I think that we’re looking at a situation in which full-length passenger trains simply aren’t cost-effective, but smaller “rail-liners” (such as what used to run on Vancouver Island, as well as between Calgary and Edmonton) might be more appropriate-assuming that they can be refurbished (there used to be a “herd” of them in the yard west of Union Station).

    • Alex

      Jim, a couple of things:

      1) Rocky Mountaineer and CP Rail are both able to make money on the Calgary-Vancouver run because they operate VERY expensive, high-end tourist trains. They are for luxury sightseeing, not for A-to-B transportation.

      2) Ms May did mention the old rail-liner service on Vancouver Island (the “E and N”), in the fifth paragraph of her letter. (As a picky point, that service didn’t just go go Nanaimo. It ran all the way north to Courtenay.)

      3) The Toronto-Chicago service that used to run by way of Sarnia was killed in 2004, largely because the State of Michigan no longer wanted to fund a cross-border service. (Many of Amtrak’s Michigan services are state-funded.) For reasons that aren’t totally clear to me, the state just didn’t see that train as a priority. See: http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/mattmelzer/2004d21a.html

      4) You may be right on the rail-liners being more suitable vehicles. However, I note that much of that “herd” was operated by CN and CP back in the day, and that didn’t stop those companies from “stampeding” (hee hee) for the exits of the passenger-rail business. I think that the problems of passenger service are more complex than just the type of vehicle used.

  • Alex

    I agree with the sentiment, Ms May, but this letter comes about to one to two years too late. Passenger rail in Canada is doomed.

    The Mulroney government gutted VIA Rail like a fish nearly a quarter-century ago, and things have only been getting worse for poor old VIA ever since. Neither the Chretien nor Martin governments had any kind of vision for VIA Rail at all, and now we have a government that is actively hostile to it.

    I think that a political decision has already been taken to dismantle VIA Rail. In my opinion, the pressure on the federal budget is being used as an opportunity to tear apart a federal entity for which western-based Conservative politicians have never had any love at all. (Anyone who doesn’t believe me should check out what Chuck Strahl had to say last year: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/romanticism-shields-outrageous-via-rail-subsidies-ex-tory-minister/article4102147/ ).

    I do not believe that VIA is headed for privatization. I think it is more likely that VIA will simply be shut down, much as the passenger services of BC Rail and the Ontario Northland Railway already have been. At best, VIA will be reduced to little more than a “triangle” (Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa) shuttle service. The transcontinental services are as good as gone, as are the remote services. (And forget about that train on Vancouver Island, Ms May–it is gone for good.)

    I came to these conclusions about VIA’s future after looking at the current timetable, because the company is no longer seriously serving any market other than the “triangle”. Three trains per week between Montreal and Halifax? Two per week between Toronto and Vancouver? One per day between Toronto and Sarnia? None at all between Toronto and Niagara Falls (other than the joint VIA-Amtrak Toronto-New York train, which I don’t think will last much longer either in this environment)?

    This feels an awful lot to me like the “de-marketing” of VIA’s services. If you know the history of the railways, you’ll know that this is EXACTLY what CP (and, to a lesser extent, CN) did to their passenger trains in the 1960s and 70s: deliberately make the service so terrible that passengers give up on it, providing the justification for abandoning the service.

    Its a shame, but–if you’ll pardon me–I think the train has left the station. It is too late. The decision to destroy VIA Rail as we know it has already been made. The era of the passenger train is just about over in Canada.

  • Anon

    Excellent letter, but it assumes that VIA Rail wants to remain in business. Mentioning employees’ comments may seem harmless, but VIA’s “management” ‘team’ could be busy going through the records to see when and on what train(s) you traveled. They could then hold investigations of those employees who worked on your train(s) to determine if these employees’ comments to you contravened VIA’s Code of Conduct. Employees could then be disciplined “accordingly” , up to and including dismissal, with little chance of successful appeal.

  • me

    Via rail’s system should be increasing service in the Quebec Windsor corridor, and should expand service in the West. Cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon form a quadrilateral corridor that should have 2 trains a day service to start with. One could leave Regina at 6 AM, be in Calgary at 10 AM, and arrive to Edmonton at 2:00 PM, then run to Saskatoon to arrive at 6:00 PM, then back to Regina at 9:00 PM, allowing for 1 hour layovers at Calgary and Edmonton. Bus service sucks, I think people in the Western Prairies could support rail service between these 4 cities to start with.

    • Mark

      4 hours between Calgary and Regina? That would require an average speed of 200km/hr, and peak speeds well into the 250km/hr range as it is an 800km trip.

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