VIA Rail Still Struggling

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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VIA Rail Canadian at Jasper. Part of the Canadian route is coming back on Friday, Dec. 11. Service will return on the western half of the route, between Vancouver and Winnipeg, with one round trip per week.

VIA Rail, Canada’s counterpart to Amtrak and a much-smaller system, is not doing well and seeking emergency government funding. It recently reported an 82% drop in ridership and an 84% decrease in revenue compared with last year, as well as a savings of 27.5% in operating expenses. Some of the savings came from reducing service, both on the railroad’s corridors in Ontario and Quebec, and on other trains. Here is a detailed rundown of the service currently offered.

VIA Rail operates a small network of corridors in Ontario and Quebec, centered on Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Before the coronavirus hit, there was a scattered group of longer runs, none of which ran every day.  They ranged from the Ocean between Montreal and Halifax; the Hudson’s Bay (an informal, not official name) from Winnipeg to Churchill, a frigid town on the Arctic waters of Hudson’s Bay; to the Canadian, a transcontinental train that made a four-day journey between Toronto and Vancouver only twice per week and featured dining cars and dome lounge cars that were hallmarks of luxury rail travel during a bygone era. (See map below.)

The virus hit VIA Rail harder than it initially hit Amtrak. The Canadian and the Ocean were suspended entirely. The Hudson’s Bay still runs on its pre-COVID schedules, but with no dining service available during its 45-hour journey. (Apparently, its purpose is to continue providing basic transportation to the First Nations communities that depend on the train service.) Eastern corridors that had previously hosted anywhere from three to eight trains per day (including Toronto-Montreal) were slashed to one daily round trip.

Unlike Amtrak, VIA Rail posts a system timetable on its website. The latest was issued Oct. 27. Service on the corridors has improved since last spring, but it is still limited. There are now two daily round trips between Quebec City and Ottawa, through Montreal. During the pre-COVID era, there had been four, running on two separate corridors. There are three daily trains between Montreal and Toronto and between Ottawa and Toronto, with a fourth train that runs on Friday, Sunday and Monday. The previous schedule had eight weekday trains, with five on Saturday and seven on Sunday. There are now two daily trains between Toronto and Windsor (actually Walkerville), Ontario, where there had previously been four; and there is one between Toronto and Sarnia, where there had previously been two.

Other trains that had operated three times per week before the virus hit now run only once per week. The trains from Montreal to northern Quebec (Jonquiere and Senneterre) now leave Montreal only on Fridays and return on Sundays. The Monday-Tuesday and Wednesday-Thursday runs have been suspended. The train on the last remaining remnant of the original CP Rail Canadian route, between Sudbury and White River, Ontario, now operates only on weekends: from Sudbury on Saturdays and back on Sundays. The weekday runs have also been suspended.

VIA Rail’s few long-distance schedules vary widely, as of early December. The Ocean between Montreal and Halifax remains completely suspended, and there is no word about when it will return to service. At the other extreme is the Hudsons Bay, which operates its entire pre-COVID schedule of two weekly round trips between Winnipeg and Churchill, with a third round trip operating only north of The Pas. It is still possible to take a round trip from Winnipeg, but only leaving on Tuesday afternoon, spending Thursday in Churchill, and arriving back in Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon. This time of year is normally the train’s busy season, as tourists historically flocked to Churchill to see polar bears roaming around the town.

The Skeena (also no longer officially carrying its historic name) is back; it runs between Jasper, Alberta and Prince Rupert, B.C., a port just south of the Alaska panhandle. It leaves Jasper on Sunday afternoon and arrives in Prince Rupert on Monday evening, with an overnight stop in Prince George, B.C. Returning, it leaves Prince Rupert on Wednesday morning and arrives in Jasper on Thursday evening. It also used to run three times per week.

The big story is that part of the Canadian route is coming back on Friday, Dec. 11. Service will return on the western half of the route, between Vancouver and Winnipeg with one round trip per week. The train will leave Vancouver on Friday afternoon and arrive in Winnipeg on Sunday night. The return trip will leave Winnipeg on Monday night and arrive in Vancouver on Thursday morning. The eastern part of the route, between Winnipeg and Toronto, will remain suspended.

In late October, VIA Rail announced the December service resumption: “After a very thorough evaluation of its health and safety protocols, including physical distancing measures, enhanced air ventilation systems, and improved measures for passenger access and the protection of its employees, one weekly round-trip will thus be offered on this portion of the Canadian route.”

There are no answers yet as to when full service will return to VIA Rail, and when Americans will again be allowed to cross the border into Canada and ride. Maybe next summer?

Railway Age reported on VIA Rail’s third-quarter 2020 results earlier this month.

Railway Age also has an early December update on Amtrak service levels in the age of COVID-19.

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