VIA Rail Canada has published a 199-page annual report for 2020, covering its response to pandemic- and blockade-related service disruptions and how it moved forward with the implementation of its 2020-25 strategic plan.
Among the highlights of VIA Rail’s report:
• In 2020, ridership came in at 1.15 million total passenger trips, falling 77% from more than 5 million trips in 2019. As a result, passenger revenues dropped 80% to C$76 million from C$388 in 2019. Total revenues were C$92 million, down 77% from $411.1 million in 2019.
• Operating expenses decreased by 21.2%. In addition to service reductions, 1,000 employees were laid off during the summer, and the company introduced reduced working hours as well as salary for a number of employees, according to the report. “Most employees have or will eventually return to duty. Additionally, certain employees were retained at a reduced salary, allowing VIA Rail flexibility to bring staff back as we gradually return to full service.”
• Preparations continued on the company’s modernization program, which includes a new fleet for the Québec City-Toronto corridor, a new reservation system, and the renovation of Heritage cars. In 2020, the final rolling stock design review was completed; production began on the first two trainsets; an onboard Wi-Fi provider was selected; and progress was made on the implementation of a computerized maintenance management information system. Of the 72 Heritage cars to be overhauled, work was completed on eight economy coach cars and four business cars. In addition, VIA Rail completed partial overhauls of 14 out of 15 P42 locomotives.
“Through the renovation of an aging fleet, the arrival of state-of-the-art trains in the Corridor starting in 2022, and our High Frequency Rail [HFR] project, we will convince more and more Canadians that VIA Rail is the smarter way to travel,” noted VIA Rail President and CEO Cynthia Garneau, who added that the company “established a solid working relationship with the Joint Project Office created by the Canada Infrastructure Bank and ourselves and are confident that we are on the precipice of positive news” for the HFR project, which involves building dedicated passenger rail tracks along the Québec City-Toronto portion of the corridor.
• The company reviewed and updated its sustainability strategy. The work included a stakeholder engagement survey “about objectives and needs to ensure actions are well aligned with expectations and will be effective relative to peer performance,” according to the report. “This led to a thorough diagnostic and analysis of current actions in sustainability to identify gaps and priorities that will have the greatest impact on VIA Rail’s performance going forward.”
• VIA Rail launched a Universal Accessibility Policy and completed 18 projects under its three-year plan and the Canadian Transportation Agency’s (CTA) Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations, which took effect in June 2020.
Looking ahead, the company’s incident response structure and main pandemic plan will be reviewed and updated, and a formal corporate-wide resilience strategy will be developed to “serve as a blueprint for business continuity,” according to VIA Rail.
“Despite the blockades [in February 2020] and the pandemic, our passengers showed an unwavering trust in our services and the measures we put in place, hence demonstrating the importance of passenger rail,” VIA Rail Board of Directors Chair Françoise Bertrand said. “As we keep dealing with COVID-19, we are committed to regaining the confidence of Canadians by offering a safe, accessible, sustainable and comfortable way to travel. This is the hallmark of the VIA Rail experience, and we look forward to welcoming back more and more passengers as soon as the situation allows it.”