It was around 2 a.m. on a summer evening in 2011 when an emergency struck Via Rail’s world-famous transcontinental passenger train.
Fabien Bisson was working an overnight shift as the services manager on board the Canadian — the flagship Via train that travels between Toronto and Vancouver.
He had taken this trip hundreds of times. But this time was different.
His teenaged daughter was on board — travelling as a passenger and on vacation. The train had left Vancouver and was approaching Ashcroft, B.C., when she rushed to get him.
She told him there was a man in another car who was wildly swinging an axe.
WATCH: Violence is on the rise on Via Rail’s Western Canadian trains. Megan Robinson reports.
“It was like a terrible scene,” Bisson, 55, told Global News in an interview in Winnipeg. “I could see this man holding the axe and then I looked at him.”
Bisson had worked for Via Rail in Montreal and later in Winnipeg since 1985, but he had never encountered a situation like this one — certainly not on the popular train that is featured on Canada’s $10 bill and described by many people as a five-star hotel on wheels.
He said the man had taken the axe from an emergency employee tool kit and used it to smash several parts of the car, including the glass covering an electrical panel and a window on a door.
Bisson said he swiftly sprung into action, fearing for his daughter’s life and the safety of all passengers on board.
He grabbed the man by the throat and started to squeeze.
“That was a moment of my life when I was fighting because I didn’t know if that guy was going to come up or not,” he said. “But I thought I might have killed him because he was blue and I choked him so hard and I could feel all the bones in his throat cracking.”
The man went down, and one of the other passengers took the axe and hid it under a bed.
Moments later, the man was back up.
Bisson said he then grabbed his radio and hit the man in the face, knocking him out.
But the man got up again, prompting Bisson to intervene and knock him down for a third time.
Eventually, the train stopped in Ashcroft, where police detained the axe-wielding passenger.
Current and former Via employees like Bisson say that violent incidents like this one used to be rare on board the Canadian. But they say this changed after October 2018, when Greyhound cancelled most of its bus routes in Western Canada, leaving Via Rail as the only major ground transportation option with affordable economy class tickets.
Although some tickets on the Canadian can cost more than $1,000 for a sleeping berth, economy tickets are frequently on sale for less than $200, between some of the Western destinations along the route, such as Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper and Vancouver.
Global News spoke to three current employees about their experiences on board in separate interviews and agreed not to identify them over their concerns Via Rail would punish them for speaking out.
Bisson, who retired in January, said he only remembers one or two major security incidents a year on the Canadian for the bulk of his career. But the Drummondville, Que., native and his former colleagues said that security incidents have now become common on Western Canadian routes, sometimes involving more than one angry or violent passenger on the same trip.
Internal emails reviewed by Global News show that Via Rail employees told management about their concerns during discussions on a company health and safety committee as early as April 2019. Bisson and others also warned company management and other federal officials orally and in writing, including through a letter to Transport Minister Marc Garneau in May 2019.
Despite those warnings, internal Via Rail statistics indicate that security incidents on the Western Canadian trains continued to escalate.
From January 2017 until fall 2018, when many bus routes disappeared, there was an average of less than one reported incident per month on the western trains, according to Via Rail’s security logs released to Global News through access to information legislation.
But in the 15 months that followed the Greyhound bus cancellations, the security logs list almost 50 security incidents on Western Canadian trains. This adds up to at least three incidents per month.
Many incidents involved violent or threatening actions, sometimes with weapons.
A few cases involved other unruly behaviour such as smoking on board or excessive drinking, including one inebriated passenger who urinated in the coach car on the Canadian in December 2019.
Overall, the internal logs list about 180 security incidents across Canada since January 2017.
But the proportion of incidents affecting trains in Western Canada rose from about 20 per cent of all incidents prior to the Greyhound cancellations, up to about 60 per cent of all cases across the country, in the aftermath of the elimination of the western bus routes.
The numbers also indicate that violent incidents are infrequent on the Crown corporation’s busiest routes between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and that security incidents do not occur on the majority of Via’s trips.
Long-distance routes such as the Canadian and regional routes like the Winnipeg-Churchill route only represent about four per cent of Via Rail’s approximately 500 trips per week.
On the Western Canadian routes, Bisson and other Via Rail employees who spoke to Global News said they were observing the impacts of a variety of larger issues in society such as homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness. They said they didn’t previously see as many passengers affected by these issues when there were more travel options by bus.
“We take social issues with us,” said Bisson, who was educated as a social worker before he started working for Via Rail in the 1980s. “We put it on board. We’re going to carry them somewhere else in the country.”
WATCH: Former Via Rail employee highlights security concerns on trains
Bisson and other employees criticized Via Rail for not acting swiftly on the security recommendations of the company’s health and safety committee, made up of union and management members.
Via Rail declined to make any of its officials available for an interview about security on its trains. But in response to the employee concerns, company spokesman Karl-Philip Marchand Giguere told Global News in an email that the health and safety committee continues to review violent incidents involving employees, seeking to reduce risks.
“We also work with community partners to address education, prevention, and crisis intervention strategies for those with mental illness and/or substance dependency,” he wrote. “We adopt best practices in passenger rail safety and provide de-escalation skills training for Via staff and police to deal with persons in crisis.”
The company also said in its statement that the safety and security of passengers and employees remained a “top priority.”
The passenger railway company has its own police force, currently with 14 appointed constables. They review incidents on a daily basis and prepare strategies to address trends, Via wrote in its statement.
Via Rail created the police service in 2014, one year after Canadian authorities made arrests in connection with an alleged terrorist conspiracy to bomb a train leaving Toronto for New York.
In an article that appeared in the March 2020 edition of Blue Line — a Canadian law enforcement magazine — Giguere wrote that Via had an “ongoing need to safeguard victims of crime, people in crisis, and those experiencing homelessness.”
The article also said that the company was coordinating its security efforts with other police forces and starting to deploy new measures and screening techniques — such as the use of police dogs — under the leadership of Via’s police chief, Peter Lambrinakos, was was previously with Montreal police.
“If there is something I understood in my 30 years of policing and which I will continue to stress, it is that relationships are key,” said Lambrinakos, in the article written by Giguere, the Via spokesman. “In a relationship — rather than just a partnership — we share a greater commitment to each other by establishing that bond of trust.”
The article indicated that Via’s new fleet of trains, expected in 2022, would have additional technologies and intelligence-gathering tools such as video surveillance systems and new emergency response procedures, but that the company was facing a “challenging” security environment in the meantime.
Concerns about security on mass transit are a longstanding issue in Canada.
In 2008, Greyhound announced some new security screening measures for passengers on its Canadian routes, months after a mentally-ill man stabbed and beheaded another passenger near Portage La Prairie, Manitoba in July of that year.
But Greyhound told Global News that security concerns were not a major factor in its 2018 decision to cancel most of its service in Western Canada.
Greyhound had blamed the cancellation on high costs, competition from low-cost airlines, subsidized transportation services and insufficient ridership — factors that made it unprofitable to maintain the service, the bus company said.
Meantime, in recent months, Via Rail has started to deploy new security measures of its own on its Western Canadian trains.
For example, Via Rail employees say the company has added a security guard on board trains between Edmonton and Winnipeg, only in the east-bound direction.
This came after a knife attack on the Canadian that was eerily similar to the 2008 Greyhound bus tragedy.
It happened when a westbound train stopped at a station in Biggar, Sask., on Feb. 8, 2019, allowing passengers to go outside for a break.
Global News pieced together details of the incident after reviewing notes taken by witnesses, and speaking to other sources familiar with the attack and its aftermath.
According to the notes, the attacker initially took his seat after passengers re-boarded the train at around 10:30 p.m. Moments later, the notes indicated that he pulled out a concealed hunting knife and held it to the throat of another man who was about to sit down, one row ahead.
The other man attempted to restrain his attacker, who then started “swinging his hands aggressively,” the notes continued. The passenger was cut during the struggle.
The notes from the incident indicate several passengers subsequently ran to the front of the car to get out of the way. One of the other passengers grabbed the attacker’s wrists while another put the man in a headlock to restrain him, near the back of the car, until he collapsed and let go of the knife, said the notes.
The crew temporarily used a belt and a necktie to restrain his hands and feet, said one witness.
The Via Rail employees later replaced those restraints with zip ties, according to the notes. Normally, they would not have zip ties on board, but the crew had purchased them during a stop in Winnipeg, according to the notes, after a “traumatic” incident involving another unruly passenger on a previous trip.
An RCMP spokesman said its officers arrived at the Biggar station soon after to take the man into custody and then decided to contact the Canada Border Services Agency.
The CBSA told Global News in an email that it determined that the man was a foreign national, who had been in Canada since 2004, but was no longer authorized to remain in the country.
As a result, the agency said it met with him in the early hours of the morning on Feb. 9, 2019, and informed him that he was under arrest. The agency issued a removal order on Feb. 11, before deporting the man to his country of origin in Asia.
The order barred the man from returning to Canada for at least a year. If he ever wants to return, he would first need to reimburse the Canadian government for the cost of his deportation, set at $1,500 in most cases, the agency said. He would also need to apply and pass a review under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Via Rail would later describe the incident in its security logs, released through access to information legislation, as an “assault with knife involving passengers.”
In a separate case, a violent passenger was kicked off the transcontinental train after tasering a Via Rail employee in December 2018, near Washago, Ont., a few hours after a Vancouver-bound train departed from Toronto.
Ontario Provincial Police told Global News that a 31-year-old man from Greenstone, Ont., was later charged with sexual assault and assault with a weapon as a result of the incident. He was scheduled to appear in court in February 2019 but didn’t show up. A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General told Global News that the court issued a warrant for his arrest.
And in a different case, a suspect — wanted by police for breaching a court order related to his former domestic partner — jumped off a train heading east near Capreol, Ont., on April 27, 2019, moments before Sudbury police officers, waiting for him at the station, attempted to intercept him. Bisson said he was on board at the time.
“When I was talking with the cops, and I looked outside, he was standing two feet away from me,” Bisson recounted. “So when I went to the door, he used the other door, because we have two doors, and he jumped off the train and started running into the woods.”
One day later, Bisson said he saw the same man at the Capreol station during the return westbound trip from Toronto, but the suspect fled before he could alert police.
A separate video reviewed by Global News depicts another violent incident involving two intoxicated men who got into a fight on a west-bound train in August 2019, after bringing alcohol on board in their bags.
“Every time they fought, they actually fell on passengers,” said Bisson, who was also on this trip.
Bisson eventually persuaded them to move into a baggage car. He and four of his colleagues kept a close eye on the two men, who continued to fight. They remained in the car until the train stopped in Blue River, B.C., where police boarded and detained the two men. Bisson said other passengers applauded the train attendants for their efforts.
“If this would have happened on an airline, you would have been tackled (by a marshal) on the spot,” Bisson said. “We didn’t touch the individuals because we cannot touch people, but we managed to bring them to a spot where they were confined and they were not going to disrupt the rest of the crowd.”
When asked about the incident, the RCMP said that an investigator determined that the two men, listed as Alberta residents, knew each other and had consumed alcohol. The police officers prevented the men from re-boarding the train, but they weren’t charged. Instead, the RCMP helped them find a safe location to stay until they could make alternative travel arrangements to a B.C. destination, RCMP Cpl. Jesse Donaghey explained.
Bisson added that Via employees can sometimes anticipate which passengers will cause trouble “because they’re acting a certain way and when this is taking place, you know if you’re going to have a good trip or a bad trip,” Bisson said. “You know if you’re going to call the cops at one point or not call the cops.”
But he said that employees have also recommended some solutions, such as requiring mandatory ID checks, when verifying tickets. Right now, he said that employees are only required to check ID before serving alcohol.
He and other employees have also recommended additional security screening at stations and increased security on board trains. This could also include checking carry-on bags to ensure that passengers do not bring alcohol, drugs or weapons on board, he added.
Speaking to Global News a few hours after this article was published, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said that most Via Rail trips are safe.
“I think any incident on a passenger train is obviously an undesirable situation,” Garneau said, during a media scrum outside the House of Commons. “We’re mindful of a few incidents that have occurred and obviously we don’t want these incidents to occur. But to be honest with you, they happen, unfortunately, in all modes of transportation. Our goal is to keep it to a minimum.”
Garneau’s office previously told Global News in an email that Transport Canada had reviewed the concerns raised in Bisson’s May 2019 letter to the minister and noted that it is aiming to bring newly proposed passenger rail security regulations into force in the spring of 2020.
The regulations would require Via Rail to “address the broader issues related to workplace safety” and take action to improve its security as needed, Garneau’s office said in the email, sent to Global News on Feb. 12.
WATCH: Transport Minister Marc Garneau responds to Global News investigation.
Bisson said that a government official called him soon after receiving his letter to the minister to ask questions about some of the recent incidents. Transport Canada also wrote to Bisson, more than five months after receiving the letter, apologizing for taking so long to respond, but insisting that security was a priority.
Kim Benjamin, a director-general responsible for intermodal, surface, security and emergency preparedness at the department, wrote in the letter to Bisson, dated Aug. 26, 2011, that Transport Canada was relying partly on a voluntary agreement with Via Rail to tackle security issues.
She also wrote that the department was playing a leading role in overseeing railway security, including through the anticipated security regulations.
Bisson said that some new measures introduced by Via Rail, such as adding security guards between Edmonton and Winnipeg, were helpful in deterring potentially unruly passengers from making trouble on board. But Bisson said the company must do a lot more.
“We don’t want this (only) from Edmonton to Winnipeg,” he said.
“We want it from Toronto to Vancouver and Vancouver to Toronto. If you have a marshal on board the airline, he doesn’t go out with his parachute in the middle of the trip. He stays until he gets to the end.”
The security concerns have also been compounded by excessive delays in recent years caused by mechanical issues and freight railway traffic that has sometimes put the Canadian more than 40 hours behind schedule.
Some Via Rail workers have asked to be reassigned to other positions or taken leaves of absence due to the excessive stress of the job, said Bisson and other sources.
Via Rail didn’t respond to a question from Global News about whether it kept statistics about employees taking leaves of absence due to incidents in the workplace.
In a phone interview, Laura Hazlitt, a Winnipeg-based representative from Unifor, the union that represents most Via Rail workers, said that her local has been trying to get precise numbers about stress leave from management, but hasn’t yet been successful.
“We have a few members that have experienced multiple traumas on board and they all react differently,” said Hazlitt, who has previously worked on board the passenger trains. “Sometimes, it just becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Cathy Crowe, a social justice advocate who is also known as the Canadian Street Nurse, told Global News in a separate interview that governments shouldn’t leave passenger railway workers to address these types of social issues alone on the front lines.
“They’re not a drop in. They’re not a shelter. They’re not a mental health agency,” she said in Toronto. “So, same as with on planes, you expect people to provide first aid or be kind, help people. But they have a much different job and role.”
Crowe also said that it’s common for vulnerable people such as the homeless or mentally ill to leave their homes and travel to other cities during hard times.
“I first saw that in Toronto when I first became a street nurse,” she said. “I kept hearing all these Maritime accents in downtown Toronto. And of course, it was because the economy there (in Atlantic Canada) was so poor in the 80s and early 90s.”
WATCH: Street Nurse says railway workers shouldn’t tackle social issues alone
She added that she saw trends involving plant closures that would drive people from small towns into neighbouring towns, communities or the big city.
“It happens all across the country,” she said. “Some communities don’t even have shelters. So people come for the hope that they’ll be able to access resources or get work.”
But she said Canadians need to do more to assist vulnerable people so that they aren’t forced to move to a new city to seek help or support.
“That’s the worst thing that can happen to somebody: to make them leave their home community either by force or coercion or because there are no services in that community,” she said. “And I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Concerns about vulnerable travellers in Western Canada were also flagged to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a memo signed by then-Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick on Sept. 4, 2018.
Global News obtained a censored version of the memo through access to information legislation.
It was drafted in response to a July 2018 letter to Trudeau from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that called for a national transit strategy in response to the Greyhound bus cancellations.
“This is an important matter for many vulnerable Canadians in the affected regions,” said the memo to Trudeau.
The Privy Council Office, the central department in the federal public service that provides advice to the prime minister, also said in the memo that federal departments and affected provincial governments were concerned about the loss of intercity bus services.
“Though in decline, intercity bus services have been an important means of meeting the mobility needs of Canadians, particularly in rural and remote communities, where it is often the only public intercity travel option.”
It wasn’t clear whether the memo mentioned security concerns related to Via Rail since it was censored by PCO, prior to release under the Access to Information Act.
Bisson has long been advocating for new security measures on board trains. As a former official with his union, he said he had even written to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., to recommend new security screening of passengers.
But increased security measures could also take away from one of Via Rail’s top-selling points to attract passengers who want to avoid the hassles and delays triggered by security in airports.
Hazlitt, currently the local Unifor representative in Winnipeg, added that she believed that Via’s trains are generally safe, but that the union would like to see more rules and structure around what can be done on board, when faced with individuals who are difficult to control.
She also said that the union would welcome any effort by the company to start identifying and tracking unruly or violent passengers, including the creation of a list that could be similar to a no-fly list on airlines.
She added that she couldn’t provide examples of her union’s specific recommendations since it is currently negotiating its collective agreement with the company, behind closed doors, and doesn’t want these negotiations to spill over into the public.
Bisson has two family members who still work for Via Rail and work on the Canadian. He said he is going public about his experiences because he wants to ensure that Via and government officials take action now, before it’s too late.
He said that Via Rail is struggling to maintain its services with its existing government subsidies, so he believes the federal government should cover costs of additional security as they do with screening services at airports.
“We don’t want to wait for someone to get hurt or killed … before we act.”
– with files from Jigar Patel, Bryan Mullan and Max Hartshorn, Global News
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:14 p.m. Eastern Time on March 9, 2020 with new comments from Transport Minister Marc Garneau.