VIA Rail CEO tells MPs climate change is leaving transport networks vulnerable

Click to play video: 'VIA Rail CEO tells MPs climate change is leaving transport networks vulnerable'
VIA Rail CEO tells MPs climate change is leaving transport networks vulnerable
WATCH: VIA Rail CEO tells MPs climate change is leaving transport networks vulnerable – Jan 26, 2023

Climate change is posing a threat to Canada’s transportation network, VIA Rail’s top executive said Thursday to MPs examining severe travel delays that played out over the holidays.

Martin R. Landry, interim president and chief executive officer of VIA Rail, told the House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee that the winter storm, which swept across Ontario and Quebec between Dec. 23 and 26, severely impacted its operations in the region. VIA Rail also had failures of its own that contributed to the poor service, Landry added.

Earlier this month, MPs heard from airline and airport executives who also laid blame on the storm, but Landry told politicians that the country’s transportation system is at risk with severe weather events becoming more common with climate change.

Read more: Southern Ontario digs out after winter storm that brought significant snow

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We “need to increase the resiliency of our transportation infrastructure in order to deal with severe weather-related issues caused by climate change,” Landry told the committee.

“Extraordinary weather events are becoming more common, and we need to act quickly in order to preserve the integrity of the transportation system.”

Earlier this month, VIA Rail apologized for the widespread delays passengers saw over the holidays. Some passengers found themselves stranded on trains for upwards of 20 hours in eastern Canada.

Click to play video: 'NDP federal transport critic calls for change after holiday travel chaos'
NDP federal transport critic calls for change after holiday travel chaos

Landry told politicians that there were two major factors which impacted VIA’s operations over those days. Firstly, the storm broke several trees that landed on rail tracks, prolonged power outages and froze rail switches. Secondly, a train derailment near Toronto on Christmas Eve left VIA “with no other choice” but to cancel all the services on its Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes for three days, he said.

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VIA Rail owns and maintains only three per cent of the tracks it operates on, Landry added. During those days, VIA was operating on CN Rail tracks, he said. CN officials did not appear at Thursday’s meeting, but have addressed interest in attending a future session, MPs said.

Read more: Via Rail issues apology to passengers; advocate says service disruption was out of their hands

VIA was in constant communication with CN Rail, which was having troubles of its own, Landry said.

“In accordance with our industry standards, it’s the (rail line) owners who are responsible to assist us as quickly as possible in the event of problems related to railway infrastructure,” he said.

“I want to be clear: this is not to point the finger at other parties or to absolve VIA of its role in the frustrations experienced by our passengers, their families and friends. I make this point to help the committee members understand the environment in which we operate.”

VIA Rail has hired external experts to review its performance during the holidays, and Landry said the corporation has already identified shortcomings.

Read more: Ottawa ‘not hiding’ from holiday travel chaos fallout, transport minister says

It needs to improve its communication with customers, and it needs to overhaul its standard readiness plans for extreme weather conditions, he said.

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“Despite the fact that the situation was constantly evolving, we should have been more thorough in our communications to reassure our passengers and their families,” he said.

“Despite having increased our all our food and water supplies on board our trains and intermediate stops as per winter protocols, we had limited success in getting additional supplies to our mobilized trains due to road closures and the location of some of our trains.”

Landry added VIA Rail is providing impacted customers with a refund and travel credits.

Click to play video: 'Airline compensation measures under scrutiny'
Airline compensation measures under scrutiny

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra appeared at the committee earlier this month and vowed to toughen up existing air passenger rules, which critics argue lack the teeth to hold companies accountable for compensating air customers.

But in a statement sent to The Canadian Press, Alghabra’s office did not address whether the minister supports calls to expand the existing passenger protection regime to cover rail travellers.

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“The safety of crew and passengers is always a top priority. All options are on the table to strengthen passenger safety even more,” the office said.

Click to play video: 'Canadian airline executives apologize for holiday travel chaos'
Canadian airline executives apologize for holiday travel chaos

Alghabra told reporters during a media event on Thursday that he expects VIA Rail to act on the external review’s recommendations.

VIA’s appearance follows earlier testimony by leaders at Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing, who faced questions about the hundreds of flights they cancelled or delayed over the holidays.

Sunwing Airlines came under intense scrutiny after hundreds of passengers were left stranded in Mexico, saying they could not get an answer from the company about returning to Canada. The passengers have all since returned to Canada, and the airline has apologized.

Sunwing also faced criticism not long after for cancelling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. It has also reduced winter flights out of Moncton, N.B., Fredericton and Halifax.

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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