What’s holding up VIA’s Canadian? (Updated)

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Timothy Stevens

You think Amtrak has problems with long-distance train punctuality? VIA Rail Canada recently has been experiencing debilitating delays with the Canadian, its premier, first-class Toronto-Vancouver train, renowned for luxurious accommodations, excellent on-board service, and—oh yes—dining cars. But I’m not going to broach that subject just now.

I offer this report from the CBC:

“VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian is notorious for delays. But a trip this week from Toronto to Vancouver is proving to be spectacularly late, even by VIA standards. As of Thursday (May 24) afternoon, the westbound Canadian was some 45 hours behind schedule, after leaving Toronto 26 hours late. While VIA has apologized to the passengers, it also said it will not be offering any compensation for those whose plans are disrupted by the schedule. Out-of-town passengers were provided hotel rooms and meals for the day-long delay in departure.

“‘We understand the impact this major delay has on our customers and we apologize for the inconvenience they cause,’ said spokesperson Mylène Bélanger. ‘These delays are beyond our control.’

“The delays occur because, unlike Amtrak, VIA has no statutory right of preference over freight trains, meaning it can and often is delayed when CN freight trains are given priority. (Emphasis mine.) It is not a new problem; News Wire reported last year on a Canadian that arrived more than 24 hours late.”

Translation: It’s CN’s fault. Blame the host railroad. In this case, it appears that CN is at fault, completely.

So I asked CN to explain. I asked if the railroad could offer a statement on the Canadian “getting repeatedly slammed,” as I put it, rather directly.

CN’s response: “VIA is a valued customer, and CN works closely with VIA to provide quality service. Our teams work diligently to balance the operating realities of running freight, commuter and intercity passenger service on the same rail network. CN is making record investments to more efficiently handle increased traffic across CN’s network. While freight traffic, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, is up, we prioritize VIA trains where possible.”

This is not what I consider a viable answer. For example, “where possible.” What does that mean? It could mean almost never. So I responded:

“That’s not really an answer. It doesn’t say much. True, I asked you for a statement, and that’s what you provided. But it tells me almost nothing. It’s just the usual euphemistic corporate-speak. I’ll restate: The Canadian is chronically late. A recent report says one train was 45 hours behind schedule. VIA blames CN (‘These delays are beyond our control.’) Why is this happening and what specifically is CN doing (operationally, dispatching, etc.) to correct the problem? I’d appreciate a more detailed response.”

I did receive a response from CN. (Understandably, it was delayed, as the communications folks were occupied with a minor derailment in Montreal). In short, CN acknowledges that there is no quick fix. The basic problem is a shortage of capacity (which is also impacting freight movements) on the railroad’s transcontinental main line. This is being addressed through CN’s capex program, which involves adding double track and lengthening sidings, among other measures such as purchases of new road locomotives and freight cars (boxcars, grain hoppers and center beam flats).

Railroad economist and Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze, who has ridden the Canadian numerous times and has witnessed first-hand what transpires out in the field, offers the following:

“This is an incredibly complex operating problem. CN responded with a generalized public relations response that recognizes the freight railroad doesn’t yet have a practical ‘fix’ in place.

“Until the additional track passing loops and sections of double track have been built, CN dispatchers have to work around the train delays to both sectors.

“CN and VIA should have last year sat down and figured out a compromise to protect Canadian customers as a matter of simple organizational pride. They could still do that. How?

“Make a few scheduled daylight stops for the Canadian. Allow passengers time to stroll around the local towns and catch a pub or a local sight. Lengthen the four-night/three-day schedule by about an eight-hour window. That change would allow CN dispatchers to catch a break in the schedules—and for a few of the nominal expected delays to be smoothed out.

“Give a pay incentive to CN dispatchers as recognition of their reducing Canadian delays by some percentage over each dispatcher’s territory. VIA and CN should jointly agree to fund the incentive bonus. Make the bonus a reasonable ‘pool’ of money that would be distributed quarterly.

“CN senior management would have to personally commit to making the improved dispatching and bonus work. They don’t have to agree to eliminating train delays. Instead, figure out a way to reward performance to no more than a typical one- to three-hour delay—with VIA lengthening the schedule into the late spring of 2019 by about four hours.

“Each operating company agrees to some improvement match—at least until CN can complete its current siding and related capex program.

“For through passengers, the Canadian is basically a great cruise train experience, cheaper than the rival excursion train that operates on Canadian Pacific with overnight stops.

“For local/regional travelers, the Canadian is kind of a semi-reliable unscheduled short trip option. It is relatively expensive if passengers always need to have an insurance policy to cover the unreliable arrival times.

“Recently, with the two-day arrival delay, service has become an out-of-control bad joke that reflects poorly on both companies. Both have a soiled image. VIA’s and CN’s leaders need to step up and earn their executive salaries by teaming for a respectable joint fix to the reliability problem. At least find a workable short-term fix.

“Assigning blame is tiresome. Why not seek solutions that are practical, even if they’re not perfect? Are CN and VIA so inclined?”

It appears they are. On May 29, VIA President and CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano announced that the Canadian’s schedule will be lengthened, though he didn’t say by how much. Without mentioning CN by name, he said that “within the next few weeks — or months at the most … hopefully, the on-time performance will [become more] predictable, [but] we won’t be able to make the trip time shorter … The solution is that we are working with our infrastructure partner, who shares our concern for this deteriorating service. The  situation as “challenged” (there’s one of those over-used euphemisms again  because “freight lines are congested with long, heavy, slow freight trains, and VIA runs on that same infrastructure, and therefore our time-to-destination is getting longer and longer, and therefore more and more unpredictable.”

I suppose that padding the Canadian’s schedule is about the only fix at this point. Let’s see what happens when the capacity expansion is completed.

Photo courtesy The Dallas Morning News

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