When VIA Rail was almost cut in half

The railways helped build Canada in the 19th century. More than 100 years later, train service for passengers started coming off the rails.

Passenger train routes were on the chopping block in 1989

VIA cuts routes and staff in 1989

33 years ago
Duration 2:36
Transport Minister Benoit Bouchard announces deep cuts to passenger train service across the country.

Why don't you take the train?

Maybe because it stopped serving your region of Canada 30 years ago. 

On Oct. 4, 1989, CBC's The National reported on cuts that would be coming to VIA Rail, Canada's passenger train network, within three months.

"I'm sorry, but we can't afford anymore to put billions and billions of dollars [into] a system that Canadians use less and less," said Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard, when officially announcing the decision.

Cutting subsidies

"In some cases it would be less expensive to pay a helicopter," said Transport Minister Benoit Bouchard, while defending the cuts to VIA Rail. (The National/CBC Archives)

Reporter Wendy Mesley said the government was cutting its annual subsidy to VIA Rail and would save $1 billion over five years.

In effect, she said that meant a reduction to VIA's budget that would cut it by half. Even in urban regions where VIA remained, ticket prices would be going up.

But at the same time his government announced the cuts, prime minister Brian Mulroney tried to "soften the blow," said Mesley.

"Mulroney has announced a Royal Commission to recommend how Canada's planes, trains and buses could be better integrated," said Mesley.

The Royal Commission on National Passenger Transportation filed its report in November 1992. 

According to the Globe and Mail, the Commission concluded that "Canadian governments should end their $5-billion-a-year subsidies and make passengers pay the full cost of road, rail, water and air travel."

'Wholesale destruction'

"Isn't the Royal Commission nothing more than an autopsy on the prime minister's latest victim?" asked Liberal Transport Critic Brian Tobin in Parliament the day the cuts were announced, along with a Royal Commission on the integration of Canada's trains, planes and buses. (The National/CBC Archives)

In Question Period the day VIA cuts were announced, the opposition parties hit the government hard.

NDP Leader Ed Broadbent condemned the "wholesale destruction" of the rail system across the country.   

And Liberal Transport Critic Brian Tobin said the proposed Royal Commission amounted to an "autopsy" of the cuts already announced. 

Where VIA was cut

The train routes VIA cut

33 years ago
Duration 1:15
Routes almost everywhere across the country will cease to exist under 1989 government changes to VIA Rail.

Off the top of The National that night, announcer Knowlton Nash outlined the routes that would be affected by the "deep" cuts.

In Nova Scotia, service from Halifax to Yarmouth, N.S., and Sydney, N.S., would come to an end, and in New Brunswick there would no longer be a route between Moncton, N.B. and Edmundston, N.B.

Trains serving parts of Ontario, particularly in the northeast and northwest, were also casualties.

In Western Canada, VIA would no longer run from Winnipeg to Calgary, while Vancouver Island would lose service between Victoria and Courtenay, B.C.