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

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