VIA Rail’s ambitious new CEO

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

Yves Desjardins-Siciliano attempts to reshape Canada's intercity carrier into a high-efficiency, high-performance system.

Ever since Canada’s state rescue of passenger trains in 1977, VIA Rail has depended on the government of the day to spackle the gaps between revenues and operating costs. Allocations for fleet renewal and infrastructure have been meted out only grudgingly.

The result, 37 years later, is a spinal cord of daily intercity services in the two central provinces of Quebec and Ontario, with thin microfilaments extending to each of Canada’s three ocean coasts—nearly all of it on track owned and dispatched by CN.

So why are VIA’s unfailingly courteous on-board crews and station staff suddenly so chuffed about the future of their trackless railway? The answer is in the convincing futurism of VIA’s new CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. The lawyer-turned-railroader dismisses questions about what’s next in the way of service cuts, and instead, looks ahead to building a brand new, intercity network in Central Canada—while restoring some long abandoned regional services in the East and West.

“There is more of an opportunity for growth than there is a risk of downsizing,” he told Railway Age during an interview in his downtown Montreal offices, a few subterranean steps away from the city’s cavernous Central Station.

Desjardins-Siciliano was appointed CEO last year, after four years as chief legal officer, and hard upon previous business and government careers in the walnut-paneled aeries of Montreal’s and Toronto’s financial districts and the neo-gothic sandstone fantasies sheltering Ottawa’s governing class. His new digs are refreshingly free of architectural pretension, with just a glass wall providing conversational privacy from the otherwise wide-open executive suite. A dramatic mural depicting a drone’s-eye view of a speeding steam locomotive (something VIA has never had on its roster, though much of its car fleet does indeed pre-date Canada’s total dieselization in 1960) dominates the minimalist décor.

“Our first role is to run the railway—with the assets we have today,” Desjardins-Siciliano said in one of his first wide-ranging interviews since assuming his post in May 2014. “It’s not our role to make transportation policy.” After a tactical pause to allow the disappointment to set in, he proceeded to set out in delicious detail what sounds awfully like a thoughtful transportation policy for the future of rail passenger service in Canada.

It starts with an epitaph for the historical cohabitation of passenger and freight services on crowded intercity routes: “After 150 years, the mixed environment is no longer sustainable. So, we might as well get on with the future,” he said. “The sheer number and size of freight trains are not going to change any time soon. We have to make our peace with that, which means: Either we accept it, which makes service extremely challenging for passengers, or we invest in dedicated trackage.

“We will continue to work with our railway partners to ensure that wrong dispatching calls aren’t made too often; but in parallel, we have to develop an alternative that will convince the government that it’s time for VIA to look at other sources of funding, including other levels of government, and the private sector. The federal taxpayer is now covering 53% of the average passenger fare and has invested $1 billion in capital improvements; I think that’s enough.”

Ontario has already hinted it might partner with VIA on regional train service, instead of pursuing the 50-year-old fool’s errand of trying to outpace car congestion by widening the highways. “The corridor of any railway is a wealth-creation engine,” posits the VIA CEO. “Industry and people want to get close to the tracks. Local governments that benefit from the deployment of high-efficiency, high-performance trains should make a contribution.”

Desjardin-Siciliano’s vision of a “high-efficiency, high-performance” passenger system involves disentangling ownership of rights-of-way, track infrastructure, and trains.

“In a perfect world, the Government of Canada should own the rights-of-way for passenger rail. Everything else, including trackage and perhaps rolling stock, should be funded privately.”

Realistically, only the Quebec City-to-Windsor, Ont. “Corridor” has enough traffic potential to justify passenger-only trackage. The public-private partnership model depends, of course, on convincing both government and private investors that travelers would indeed patronize fast, safe, and punctual passenger trains.

“It’s up to Canadians; the best way to express their interest is to get on a train. If the passenger commitment is there, then we have a case for investors.” VIA’s CEO hopes that more-energetic marketing will help customers demonstrate their commitment.

“People are not really aware of the frequency of our trains in the Corridor, the comfort of the ride, nor the continuous Wi-Fi. We have to do a better job of promotion. I am cautiously optimistic that we are succeeding because the numbers are indeed improving.”

In 2013, VIA served 3,624,917 passengers in the intercity Corridor, a 1% annual increase. But growing the Corridor business means bucking the track congestion that makes VIA struggle to maintain its already poor, 80% on-time performance. “The issue is not that our run times are longer than they should be; the problem is that it makes our run times unreliable. People can live with any reasonable trip time because they can plan around it. If you can’t make the schedule 95% of the time, then you have a big problem getting their trust.”

Demographic changes make this a propitious time for passenger rail, believes Desjardins-Siciliano.

“In 20 years, a quarter of the Canadian population will be over 65. Many of them will start to be mobility challenged and will need to use shared transportation. At the other end of the spectrum, today’s youth defines freedom as connectivity—not as being stuck in a car. (VIA’s Corridor trains offer continuous Wi-Fi and seat-side power outlets in business class.) Then you have Canada’s 250,000 immigrants per year, the vast majority of whom come from cultures friendly to passenger rail. Those three factors should create a huge pool of demand for passenger rail services—provided our trains leave and arrive when we say they will.”

Notably absent from his vision of a high-efficiency, high-performance passenger railway is the notion of “high-speed.”

“One hundred miles per hour is quite fast enough, thank you. VIA is a train service and it should economically serve intermediate points as well as the large urban centers. If you take out the small towns and price yourself like an airline, you might as well be an airline.”

Rather than trying to poach airline passengers, VIA treats them as customers in need of land links at either end. VIA’s Corridor trains already stop at Montreal’s international airport, with a free, five-minute shuttle between rail station and air terminal. By this spring, VIA will interconnect with the new Union-Pearson Express trains that link Toronto’s airport with the city’s downtown.

Toronto’s centenarian Beaux Arts Union Station is in the midst of a transformation that will enhance the overall travel experience of passengers, and perhaps help VIA predate the 83% of trips in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle that are by private car.

Shifting any significant share of passenger miles from road to rail will strain VIA’s current Corridor capacity. Congestion makes adding trains counterproductive, while longer trains would be hard to assemble with VIA’s tired intercity fleet.

The 33-year-old aluminum LRC trainsets are undergoing their last feasible refurbishment, while the collection of post-war, heavyweight steel coaches, handed down from a variety of North American carriers, is considered economically beyond rebuilding. (The Canadian’s superb fleet of 1950s stainless steel cars and The Ocean’s Renaissance sets, originally built for Chunnel service between London and Paris, will be maintained into the foreseeable future).

“The priority right now is replacement of the Corridor fleet. That’s why we need to know what kind of network we will have: Will it be electrified? What speeds will it run? Those are key considerations before we invite tenders. And maybe, depending on the type of business we are building, those cars could be sourced with private investment.” The money is there, he says.

“Every major sovereign wealth fund and pension pool is looking for major infrastructure projects to invest in. There are two key conditions for infrastructure investors: One is the size of the project: bigger is better; the other is that it has to be in an economically strong and geopolitically stable environment. We are lucky enough to be in Canada, which in my opinion has the best-managed economy. There should be a way to tie these things together.”

Socially sensitive investors also prefer climate-friendly projects, and VIA, amenably, emblazons “A Green Choice” on the flanks of its teal, gray, and gold locomotives. That factor might also appeal to a Canadian government somewhat wanting on environmental accomplishments.

“In a world of carbon concerns, rail is the most efficient mode of transportation, particularly if it is electrified. We are sitting here in Quebec, which has surplus hydroelectric power. So for both economic and environmental reasons, rail is the right way to go. The real test is whether there is an appetite out there in the private sector, with the support of the federal government, to appreciate the market opportunity.”

Vast distances and sparse populations rule out a fresh start beyond the Corridor. The long-distance Ocean from Montreal to Halifax, the Toronto-Vancouver Canadian, and the non-name Winnipeg-Churchill overnight sleeper service to Hudson Bay will continue to share their historical routes with freight trains. That makes passenger schedules largely something to aspire to, but with most overnight passengers riding for the joy of the trip as much as for the destination, on-time arrivals are thus less critical than for the Corridor’s commercial and social travel.

Imperfect but inexpensive track sharing also makes most sense for the restoration of intercity trains to the Prairie and Atlantic provinces. Alberta’s modern-day boomtowns of Calgary and Edmonton are unconnected by train. The provincial capitals of Regina, Sask., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, are similarly devoid of intercity service.

Regional service in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia has been downgraded over the years to just the thrice-weekly Ocean, and VIA’s CEO hints that the Maritime provinces deserve better. Provincial support will doubtlessly be solicited for intercity additions to VIA’s timetable.

“I believe that Canadians are coming to a common view that it makes sense to have an efficient, high-performance passenger service between major urban centers. And I also think our policymakers usually reach the right decisions; otherwise we wouldn’t have the best country in the world.”

With his professional intimacy with big business and public policy (and his unapologetic love of country) Desjardins-Siciliano appears to have the tools and character to justify the faith of his 2,600 employees, and, of course, the four million passengers who choose VIA every year.