By Mike De Souza and Megan Robinson Global News
Published March 10, 2020
12 min read
In 1950, a passenger rail trip from Toronto to Vancouver, through the “majestic Canadian Rockies in daylight,” would take 83 hours and 45 minutes.
That’s according to an official timetable released by CN Rail, which, along with CP Rail, used to operate both passenger and freight trains across the country.
Today, someone who books the same trip on “The Canadian” — the flagship train operated by Via Rail — will see an estimated travel time of 97 hours and 15 minutes.
So in 70 years, as trips by planes and cars have gotten faster, the world-famous transcontinental rail trip on Canadian railroads — a trip featured on Canada’s $10 bill — has become 14 hours slower.
If you go back further in time, the scheduled trip from Toronto to Vancouver is about nine hours slower today than it was under CP Rail some 100 years ago.
And that’s if you’re lucky.
The reality — according to frequent rail travellers, employees and even Via Rail itself — is that the on-time performance of The Canadian has gotten so “terrible” that Via can no longer offer viable transportation options for residents in many regions of Canada.
These regions include major cities with Via Rail stations such as Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Excessive delays have left some Via Rail trains as many as 43 hours — nearly two days — behind schedule, with passengers immobilized on tracks for extended periods.
“So on one of the last trips I took, I just expected a 12-hour delay. That was just normal,” said David Androvich, a Manitoba-based airplane pilot who enjoys taking trips on The Canadian when he has time off.
CN owns most of the tracks used by Via Rail. This forces Via to negotiate access and schedules for its passenger trains and compete with freight trains that carry valuable merchandise.
Androvich said he tolerates the tardiness because he loves the experience aboard the transcontinental service. But he has observed that delays are becoming progressively worse.
Via Rail estimated that more than 90 per cent of trains on the transcontinental Canadian route were late in 2017, and about 70 per cent were late in the following year.
By 2019, Via Rail was warning passengers who booked trips online to expect delays on The Canadian and avoid making any time-sensitive plans on the day of their scheduled arrival, blaming traffic from freight trains for causing delays.
“The situation is a serious embarrassment for Canada’s reputation and the Canada brand, in North America and abroad,” the Crown corporation wrote in a planning report released in 2019.
The unreliable performance, combined with the elimination of a number of regional routes, has taken a toll on Via Rail’s ridership in recent decades as millions of Canadians have stopped taking the train. Over the past decade alone, Via estimates ridership decreased on The Canadian by about 10 per cent.
The delays also reflect “poorly on Canadian tourism itself,” as many passengers post abysmal online reviews about their experiences, said the report.
“I will never use this ‘service’ again,” said one of three highly critical online reviews, quoted in the Via Rail report.
“If there is an alternative, I’d suggest you consider it. It’s amazing that a first world country can have such totally unreliable trains.”
Another review described Via as a “nightmare of a railway” and added that ticket agents at the station can only “apologize and say it happens all the time.”
The delays also cost taxpayers money.
In its latest corporate planning report from 2019, Via Rail said that revenues on The Canadian in 2018 decreased by about six per cent and spending increased by about six per cent due to the excessive delays that caused additional overtime costs and reduced ridership.
All of this increases the company’s deficit, which is ultimately absorbed by the Canadian government, Via Rail’s owner.
Meanwhile, annual ridership on all of Via Rail’s intercity trains has dropped from a peak of over eight million passengers, in 1981, to about 4.5 million, in recent years, according to the Crown corporation’s annual reports. Via Rail has warned in its reports that these trends could trigger further route cancellations and make the problem worse.
Via Rail recently eliminated two of its six weekly transcontinental Canadian trips between Toronto and Vancouver in 2018. In the same year, it added nine hours of padding onto the schedule of the remaining Canadian trips in order to improve their chances of being on time.
Via said in its 2019 corporate planning report that CN executives were the ones who proposed cancelling some of the weekly Toronto-Vancouver trips during a May 2018 meeting.
However, a few months later, Via said that CN officials agreed to a compromise that would maintain a return trip between Edmonton and Vancouver, while eliminating one weekly departure and arrival of The Canadian in Toronto.
Despite making these changes to accommodate CN, Via Rail said in its last annual report from 2018 that it was still facing “significant delays” on The Canadian.
Via Rail also said in its 2018 planning report that CN Rail freight traffic was responsible for 85 per cent of the delays on The Canadian since the private railway company owns most of the tracks and often requires the passenger trains to stand still on the tracks when freight trains — carrying cargo such as oil, grain, timber and other shipments — need to pass.
Via and CN both declined interview requests, but told Global News in emails that they’ve been working to resolve their scheduling conflicts.
CN Rail, which was a former Crown corporation that benefitted from billions of dollars in subsidies, said it has recently invested billions of its own money over the past few years to improve and expand its infrastructure in western Canada. CN said that these investments would reduce some congestion and improve schedules for all of its customers, including Via Rail.
Delays on passenger railways aren’t just restricted to Canada. Conflicts between passenger and freight trains also affect many U.S. travellers.
In a recent report card, U.S. passenger rail company Amtrak gave CN a ‘D’ grade, second worst among railways that caused delays in 2018. But Amtrak said that CN’s performance has improved in recent months.
CN Rail told Global News that it balances the needs of passenger rail clients such as Via Rail and Amtrak with all of its other customers, who ship more than $250 billion in merchandise per year.
“CN works closely with Via to provide quality service and Via’s on-time performance on the busiest Quebec to Windsor corridor is consistent and pretty solid,” CN spokesman Alexandre Boulé told Global News in an email.
“We continue to discuss with Via adjustments for The Canadian to address operating challenges. Performance on this service is improving.”
Via Rail told Global News in an email that traffic has increased on railways because the Canadian economy has been doing well.
“This, amongst other factors, often has an impact on our on-time performance, which has oscillated between 66 and 73 per cent in the past three years,” said Via Rail spokesman Karl-Philip Marchand Giguere, referring to all of Via Rail’s routes, including its busiest corridor between Quebec City and Windsor.
He also noted that Via Rail’s on-time performance is over 97 per cent on the tracks that it owns, all portions within the corridor in Ontario and Quebec.
“As the track owner, CN will naturally favour its trains,” the Crown corporation wrote in its 2018 planning report. “As noted earlier, unlike elsewhere, passenger trains in Canada do not have operational priority. CN can essentially veto or unilaterally alter any request to improve passenger travel times and frequencies.”
As a result, Via Rail said CN has the power to charge more, to limit frequencies, to control travel times, to dictate schedules and deny any liability for causing delays.
This makes it harder for Via Rail to coax motorists to leave their cars behind and take the train, the Crown corporation added.
“Currently there are no repercussions for the host railway for such poor performance,” Via Rail wrote in the planning report. “As this issue will not likely be resolved through negotiations, Transport Canada must consider intervening and provide assistance in delivering an equitable arrangement.”
Some sustainable transportation advocates have proposed new passenger rail legislation that would make it easier to punish freight railways for causing delays, giving passenger trains more control over their schedules and on-time performance.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau also declined an interview about this topic. But his department said in a statement that Via already has the tools to resolve conflicts with CN and that there’s no need for better legislation.
When asked about the government’s statements about not needing new legislation, Via Rail said it adapts to Transport Canada’s rules and recommendations.
“We can confirm that this specific legislation was discussed but not adopted,” Via Rail’s spokesman told Global News.
“We are, however, in constant communication with our government partners and do discuss our recommendations when relevant. As our shareholder, Transport Canada is also aware of our strategic discussions with current and potential partners.”
Via Rail has also warned that the poor performance on The Canadian serves as a “canary in the coal mine” for what is likely to happen on its busier routes, in Ontario and Quebec, if nothing is done.
Fabien Bisson, a longtime services manager who first started working for Via Rail in 1985, said he retired in 2020 because he was fed up with having to apologize to passengers about excessive delays on The Canadian — a route he worked on hundreds of times.
He said the only thing the Via Rail employees could offer passengers who were delayed on The Canadian was a meal, but no reimbursements or rebates.
Androvich, the pilot from Manitoba, said he once boarded a train that was eight hours behind schedule, and arrived at its destination in Edmonton 16 hours late. He said it forced him to rebook some travel plans and a car rental at his destination, costing him hundreds of dollars.
“I can understand a breakdown. I can understand irregularities. But for us to be held up on the tracks like that, given zero priority, you felt like you were being shuffled around like cattle basically,” he said, blaming freight train operators for causing the delays.
Deteriorating infrastructure has also plagued Via Rail’s service in other regions, causing cancellations of routes on Vancouver Island as well as in Eastern Canada, with no signs of any new federal investments to restore service.
In its corporate reports, Via Rail has suggested that it wants to propose new regional trips between Atlantic Canadian cities such as Halifax and Moncton, but it’s unable to proceed without additional federal funding and improved access to railway infrastructure.
In 2018, Via Rail said in a report that it spent millions of dollars on track repairs in Atlantic Canada, following a 2014 agreement with CN about infrastructure work that was supposed to reduce trip times by 30 minutes. The improved trip times didn’t materialize, Via Rail said in the report.
The company has also warned of a threat to service on a route called The Ocean, between Montreal and Halifax, where Via relies on a loop near a container terminal in the Atlantic Canadian city to turn its trains around before returning westbound.
The federal government leases the land to Halterm, which has an agreement with Via Rail that allows it to use the tracks. The company has agreed to extend the access until November 2020, following mediation involving Transport Canada, Via said in its 2019 corporate planning report. But the Crown corporation has not yet announced any long-term solution that would allow it to continue its passenger rail service to Halifax.
Despite all of the challenges and risks Via has been highlighting, it has one proposal in the works that could dramatically change passenger rail service in Canada and provide an example to follow in other regions.
The plan calls for an estimated $4.4 billion to buy new tracks between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City to improve the frequency and punctuality of service on Via Rail’s busiest routes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has not yet given final approval to this “High-Frequency Rail” plan. But in a mandate letter, the prime minister asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau to work with Via Rail on the project as well as on improving access and affordability of trips to Canada’s national parks.
Transport Canada told Global News that it is assessing a range of options through initial discussions with Via Rail and Parks Canada, but that it does not yet have a timeline for implementation.
Some experts say proposals such as these are essential for promoting passenger rail as a means of transportation that slashes greenhouse gas pollution and moves Canada toward the carbon-neutral future in 2050 that Trudeau has promised.
“So, if we want people to travel by train, it needs to be the easiest, cheapest, fastest option.”
This is Part 2 in a three-part series investigating the state of Via Rail, Canada’s main intercity passenger rail service. Read Part 1 and Part 3 of the series here.