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1977: VIA Rail Canada is born

The Story

On February 28th, 1977, Federal Transport Minister Otto Lang announces the creation of a new Crown corporation that will take over all passenger rail services in Canada. It is called VIA Rail Canada. Until this time, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways both operated a mix of profitable freight services and debt-ridden passenger services. CBC Radio reporter Bob Johnstone, on board the Turbo train between Toronto and Montreal, asks his fellow passengers why they prefer traveling by rail. The Liberal government had promised to create VIA Rail almost three years earlier during the 1974 election campaign. The new corporation is designed to halve the $200 million per year passenger rail subsidy that CN and CP receive from the federal government. Passenger services will be streamlined, and some routes may be cut. Train fans are worried, while some critics believe the passenger rail system should be scrapped completely in favour of cheaper, more dependable buses. VIA Rail eventually takes possession of all CN and CP passenger equipment and personnel. However, VIA Rail does not own a single rail line and must pay right of way fees to CN and CP and contract with them for maintenance. Gradually, the corporation takes over CN and CP routes, beginning with the busy Quebec City to Windsor corridor on April 1, 1978. By 2000, VIA Rail is carrying almost 4 million passengers a year.

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Magazine
Broadcast Date: March 6, 1977
Host: Bob Oxley
Reporter: Bob Johnstone
Duration: 5:11
Photo: VIA Rail Canada Inc.

Did You know?

• In 1977, CP and CN were still using some rail equipment from the 1920s.

• VIA Rail Canada began life as a subsidiary of CNR, but on April 1, 1978, the federal government made VIA into an independent organization. VIA Rail is similar to Amtrak in the United States, which was created in 1971.

• In 1981, VIA Rail made its first major purchase, a fleet of Bombardier-built LRC trains. "LRC" stands for "light, rapid, comfortable." CN and CP maintained control over Canadian railway stations until 1984, when VIA Rail began acquiring and renovating various stations, including Quebec City's Gare de Lévis and Gare du Palais, and Union Station in Toronto.
• In 2003, VIA Rail was operating 460 trains per week on 14,000 kilometres of track serving some 450 Canadian communities.

• VIA Rail's first president, Frank Roberts, started out as a machinist apprentice with the CNR in 1939.

• The three VIA Rail maintenance centres are located in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. The Corporation's headquarters is in Montreal.

• In 2003, VIA Rail was offering a Romance by Rail package, which included a spacious suite formed from two regular bedrooms, a down duvet, fresh flowers, chocolates on the pillows, and sparkling wine.

• There's actually one passenger train still under CPR operation - the vintage Royal Canadian Pacific, which can be chartered for private trips through the Rockies.



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