Report: Péloquin Urges Government to Give VIA Rail Trains Right of Way Over Freight

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
“All we can commit right now without those rules is that we’ll get people where they want to go—eventually,” said VIA Rail President and CEO Mario Péloquin.

“All we can commit right now without those rules is that we’ll get people where they want to go—eventually,” said VIA Rail President and CEO Mario Péloquin.

VIA Rail Canada Inc. (VIA Rail) President and CEO Mario Péloquin says the federal government “should move toward giving VIA Rail trains formal right of way on the tracks over freight trains,” a measure that would align Canada with regulations in the U.S., where Amtrak passenger trains have priority, according to a report by The Canadian Press.

In an interview, Péloquin said the measure would “reduce trip disruptions” prompted by Canada’s two main freight railways—CN and Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC)—whose tracks VIA Rail runs on, and “vastly improve performance on periodically tardy passenger trains,” according to the report.

Ideally, Péloquin says, “the measure would go hand-in-hand with a passenger bill of rights comparable to the one now in place for air travelers to ensure customers receive compensation for long delays,” according to the report.

“Now, we have no class, no prioritization. There was talk about putting rules in place prioritizing passenger rail trains. I would love that, together with a bill of rights for passengers similar to what we see in the airline industry, as imperfect maybe as it is,” said Péloquin, who took over as President and CEO of VIA Rail on June 12, succeeding Cynthia Garneau.

“All we can commit right now without those rules is that we’ll get people where they want to go—eventually,” added Péloquin.

According to The Canadian Press report, “the air passenger rights charter, rolled out in 2019, spells out penalties for airlines that breach the rules and mandates passenger compensation for problems such as lost luggage and trip delays or cancellations—up to $2,300 and $1,000, respectively.

“The regulations are currently undergoing an overhaul following criticism they contain loopholes for airlines to avoid compensation, and after thousands of customer complaints to the regulator.”

According to the report, in the quarter ended June 30, 2023, VIA Rail saw 62% of its trains arrive on time, marking an improvement from 53% a year earlier.

Over the summer, former Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told media that he was “looking into measures to improve travelers’ experience amid VIA Rail’s ‘shaky performance,’ including through a bill of right.”

However, The Canadian Press reports, “not all rail industry players are on board.”

Freight Management Association of Canada (FMA) President John Corey said giving VIA Rail right of way over the country’s two Class I rail operators—CN and CPKC— would “further pressure an already strained supply chain, as would a rights charter.”

“Prioritizing passenger rail service over freight rail service would be the tail wagging the dog. Freight railways, their customers and Canadians in general would be subsidizing the few people using the passenger rail system,” Corey said.

“Currently, freight rail service in Canada is not optimal from a shipper’s point of view…Any initiative that would make freight rail service less efficient would not be supported by the FMA,” Corey added.

According to The Canadian Press report, under a bill of rights for riders, Péloquin said, “CN or CPKC could well be the ones to pay up in the event of a VIA Rail trip disruption—if it stems from their actions—further incentivizing smooth operations along the line.”

But, The Canadian Press reports, it could also cost VIA Rail, which “already contends with cash problems,” reporting operating losses in its second quarter of $120 million before government funding hit. The organization has not reached a full-year profit since 2017, according to the report.

Péloquin pointed out that “that’s the case for passenger rail companies globally, many of which are government-owned, publicly subsidized or part of a diversified business.” He framed VIA Rail as a “public utility serving far-flung populations,” stating that “it is an essential need in a lot of locations.”

Despite that, The Canadian Press reports that trip times have lengthened.

“Two decades ago, riders could board an express train in Montreal’s downtown Central Station and arrive at Toronto’s Union Station about four hours after departure, said Head of On Track Consulting Greg Gormick.

“Now, the trip typically takes about five hours—assuming no delays hamper the journey—despite roughly $300 million in federal investments along the Montreal-Toronto corridor since 2009,” according to the report.

According to The Canadian Press report, “the slowdown owes partly to the ramp-up in traffic and upgrades along Metrolinx commuter rail lines in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as CN lines, on which VIA Rail largely runs.” Only3% of the track VIA Rail uses is owned by the Crown corporation, Péloquin said.

To ensure timely train access and trip frequency, VIA Rail must negotiate scheduling deals with track owners such as CN, said Péloquin.

“We have to go to Metrolinx and then we have to go to CN Rail and say, ‘Can we please have a time slot to run an additional passenger train on your corridor, on your right of way?’ And then they may say yes or no,” Péloquin said.

Marc Brazeau, CEO of the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), which represents CN, CPKC, VIA Rail and Metrolinx, said “any legislation that alters right of way on the rails would need to be balanced against the importance of efficient freight operations.”

“While millions of Canadians rely on passenger rail to connect communities and to get them work, school, or family visits on time (or even to doctors’ appointments and to deliver their groceries in remote communities), any passenger service proposal must demonstrate that freight capacity to handle current and future anticipated volumes can be preserved, which is essential to support Canada’s economy,” Brazeau said in an emailed statement and as reported by The Canadian Press.

“Canadians already expect on-time service and high standards,” said Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez spokeswoman Laura Scaffidi, who “highlighted the federal project for a new, faster passenger railway set to stretch from Toronto to Quebec City—a high-frequency rail line currently slated to launch in the mid-2030s,” according to the report.

Rodriguez’s office, The Canadian Press reports, did not directly answer questions on whether it continues to mull passenger train priority or a bill of rights for riders.

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