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Taking the train can be a stress-free way to travel, and, in the winter, it can be one of the more reliable ways to get from A to B, as trains are generally less susceptible to bad weather than cars or planes.
But over Christmas, passengers on VIA Rail’s The Ocean, which runs through New Brunswick on its way between Montreal and Halifax, got more than their fair share of stress, when their trips were cancelled after they had already spent dozen of hours on board in delays and travel.
Tim Hayman lives in Halifax, and rides the train a lot. Even with a longer total travel time, he prefers the pace of a train trip.
“A lot of times travel can be kind of an additionally stressful thing,” says Hayman. “I find taking the train, I can just kind of relax.”
But when Hayman attempted to get home from Montreal to Halifax in time for Christmas this year, he ended up spending 30 hours on VIA’s The Ocean, and at the end of that time, he was back where he started in Montreal.
The return to his point of origin was the culmination of numerous delays and stops, all centred around a problem with the track that VIA rents from CN. Hayman first learned of the problem only minutes after leaving Montreal on the evening of Dec. 23.
“Basically, we’d gotten out of the station and just about as far as the bridge across the St. Lawrence, which is all of five minutes, and the train stopped,” recalls Hayman. The crew informed Hayman and his fellow passengers that the line up ahead was blocked and was impassable. The blockage was due to downed trees on the line in CN’s Mont Joli subdivision near Rimouski.
VIA immediately sent The Ocean back to the station and delayed the departure, with passengers able to stay on the train overnight, getting on and off at Montreal as they pleased. The next morning at 6 a.m. they left the station again, under the understanding that by the time they got to Rimouski, CN would have the tracks cleared, and The Ocean could continue its trip to Halifax.
“It wasn’t until we got to Rivière du Loup where we stopped and we ended up stuck there for a couple of hours,” says Hayman. The VIA Rail crew told passengers the line wasn’t quite yet cleared, and the train would wait out the fix. But then after a couple of hours, “the word came that the crews that were working on that were finished for the day. They weren’t going to have the line cleared, and it would be best-case-scenario sometime kind of midday on Christmas Day before they would have that cleared up.”
It was then Christmas Eve, and VIA now had two train fulls of passengers, one coming from Montreal with Hayman on board, and another one that had left Halifax on the Dec. 23, stuck on the other side of a track blocked by downed trees. And because VIA does not own the track, the had no way to fix it. Not only that, but the very same trains that were stuck were also scheduled to leave from Montreal and Halifax the next day.
After some hours delay, VIA finally decided to abort both trips, sending each train back to its point of origin. The train coming from Halifax had been at a standstill in Campbellton since the previous night. Hayman says his train pulled back in to Montreal at about 3 a.m. on Christmas morning.
VIA offered a full refund and travel credit, but Hayman opted not to chance trying the train a second time, and booked a flight home. The next train that left the evening of Christmas Day from Montreal did make it through to Halifax after all, but, says Hayman, “after being on the train for more than 30 hours and ending up back where I started, I wasn’t really looking to take a chance on that.”
Parliament looks into what went wrong
Considering the 30-hour ordeal, Hayman does not sound nearly as incensed as you might expect. He is complimentary of VIA’s on board staff, and says there was no doubt or issue when it came to full refunds and travel credits. He also has a fairly deep understanding of the complexity of VIA Rail’s situation as a passenger rail provider in Canada. In addition to his affinity for the train, Hayman serves as president of Transport Action Atlantic, an advocacy organization that aims to protect and improve pubic transportation as option for people in Atlantic Canada.
Straddling both roles as an advocate and passenger, this week Hayman had a chance to testify at parliament’s standing committee on transportation, which is investigating the collection of SNAFUs in rail and air travel that happened over the holidays. Representatives from VIA Rail also appeared at the committee, but although CN was invited, the freight company and rail infrastructure owner declined.
As both a passenger and TAA’s president, Hayman is calling for an inquiry into what happened, and he’s hoping that both VIA Rail and CN will have to answer for how it all went down with the closed track that was not fixed for more than 24 hours.
VIA CEO Martin Landry told the parliamentary committee that outside experts had been hired to review the situations, and recommend changes that could help avoid similar things in future. But he also pointed out that VIA owns and maintains less than three per cent of the tracks on which they operate. It owns none along The Ocean’s route.
Despite the fact that most of Canada’s rail lines were built at public expense, they are now for the most part owned by private companies, and in the Maritimes, that generally means CN, a former Crown corporation that was privatized in the 1990s.
Unlike in the United States, where Amtrak has access rights over much of the formerly public rail network, VIA Rail must negotiate with CN for the access they get, and though we don’t know what’s in the agreements between VIA and CN, Hayman says we do know the two services are not all that complementary.
“At the end of the day, freight and passenger trains require very different kinds of operating environments. Passenger trains are shorter and move faster. Freight trains are very slow and take up a lot of space. And these things don’t generally play very well together. So it’s always been a bit of a balancing act between these two,” says Hayman. It’s a balancing act that tends to favour those who now own the infrastructure: freight companies.
“Passenger trains are constantly kind of playing second fiddle,” says Hayman, operating on tracks not suited for their purposes, and over which they have very little control.
Service on The Ocean has been on a steady decline for decades. The once daily service now runs three days a week, making it impossible to use the train for quick return trips in the Maritimes. It’s also slow: The full trip on the Ocean currently takes about 22 hours. That’s far longer than it used to take back when Hayman started travelling by train about 15 years ago.
Much of the speed reduction has to do with track conditions through New Brunswick, says Hayman, in particular between Bathurst and Miramichi, where CN owns the track, but doesn’t use it much for its own purposes. “There’s a lot of that stretch where the train can only go 30 miles an hour, for hours on end,” says Hayman. “It’s been a significant downgrade in the overall travel time.”
Rail in the Maritimes hitting a ‘turning point’
Hayman and TAA have been for years been calling on the federal government to do something big for passenger rail, and according to Hayman, the situation is reaching a point of crisis in the Maritimes.
“We’re kind of hitting a bit of a turning point,” says Hayman, “where if we don’t see some action fairly soon, then unfortunately we might be in the kind of final days of a longstanding downward decline of passenger trains in this part of the country.”
A number of MPs at the standing committee on transportation asked VIA CEO Martin Landry about VIA’s track ownership situation, or the lack of it. In regards to the circumstances over Christmas, Landry repeatedly mentioned that VIA Rail was limited in what it could do to rectify the situation, because CN owned the infrastructure.
Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said that he felt the fact that VIA did not own the tracks it operated on was a problem. “Canada is a G7 country, and when we come to rail transportation, we really seem to be part of the 19th century,” said Boulerice. “We have a situation where freight really trumps human passengers… I think we should think about nationalizing infrastructure.”
While there are moves for VIA Rail to build its own new infrastructure in central Canada, Hayman doubts wholesale ownership of tracks in Atlantic Canada is on the horizon, though he says there are sections in New Brunswick where it might make sense for VIA to take over.
But ownership is not the only option, says Hayman. In the US, Amtrak operates much more expansive networks over tracks it does not necessarily own, but it has regulations in place to guarantee standards of access. Hayman thinks something similar would benefit VIA Rail.
The other thing that’s needed is better funding. “We really need to see increased operating funding, as well as additional capital funding for [VIA] to be able to actually replace equipment that’s more than half a century old,” says Hayman.
“I think for there to be a really serious turnaround, there needs to be a kind of fundamental shift, at some level, in our national policy around rail transportation,” says Hayman. “This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and isn’t being resolved in the current environment.”
Erica Butler, CHMA, Local Journalism Initiative