Via Rail axed its London-to-Toronto train during the pandemic. There's a push to get it back

A London, Ont., woman who regularly commutes to Toronto wants Via Rail to restore its once bustling passenger route that took commuters from London to their big-city offices before 9 a.m.

Train 82 no longer gets southwestern Ontario commuters to Toronto before 9 a.m. ET

Passengers board a Via Rail train in London, Ont., in June. During the pandemic, Via cancelled its 6:30 a.m. train from London to Toronto during the pandemic, which has decimated commuter rail service across Ontario. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

A London, Ont., woman who regularly commutes to downtown Toronto wants Via Rail to restore its once bustling passenger route that took commuters from London to their big-city offices before 9 a.m. ET.

Laura Maniago faithfully took the route for 10 years to work in Toronto as a fundraiser in education. 

But the Crown corporation cancelled the route during the pandemic, part of a cost-cutting effort as the virus decimated commuter rail service across North America when millions of people began working remotely from home. 

During that time, Via Rail reported a 77 per cent loss in passenger volume in 2020 compared to 2019, followed by an 80 per cent drop in ridership in 2021 compared to the previous year. Passenger revenues also plummeted 80 per cent in 2020, and dropped another 81 per cent in 2021. 

By March this year, the passenger rail service reported ridership was still only 60 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels and it would be adding 82 weekly train trips from the 163 already operating by this month. However, the daily two-hour trip from London to Toronto that arrived at Union Station by 8:30 a.m. was not among them. 

'What's the logic behind it?'

Maniago said the route was her best option for getting to downtown Toronto by rail in two hours. 

Passengers board a Toronto-bound Via Rail train in London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It was very convenient because you just go to our train station in London, park you car for the day, then you take the train into Union Station, get on the subway or walk to the financial sector," said Maniago. 

"I really want to understand why that 6:30 a.m. train can't be reinstated. What's the logic behind it?" 

Via Rail said in a statement that it's currently evaluating that specific train route, but it won't be back in service for June. A spokesperson said other routes are also being considered.

"We are please to offer our passengers more options this summer with the return of most of our services across the country by the end of June 2022," a spokesperson said.

"Unfortunately, Train 82 will not be part of the June resumptions and we are unable to confirm at the moment when it will return," a customer service desk who only identified herself as Stephanie wrote in the email. 

Driving to Burlington just to take the train

Maniago said she's been making do by relying on her employer's flexibility and, at times, driving to Burlington, where she catches the train at Aldershot station to be at her Toronto office by 9 a.m.

A passenger waves goodbye before boarding a Toronto-bound Via passenger train from London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It's very busy, surprisingly very busy at 6 a.m. in London with other drivers accessing [Highway] 401," she said. "For sure, there are a lot of people at that time in the morning." 

The Liberal government should be encouraging people to take the train, rather than Ontario's busy 400 series highways, as part of their pledge to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment, Maniago said. 

"Why is the fastest-growing city in Ontario according to StatsCan census information not receiving services that will help people move to their jobs and keep cars off the highways?"

Maniago has pushed this message to the city's members of Parliament, including New Democrat Lindsay Mathyssen, Liberal Arielle Kayabaga and Peter Fragiskatos, the Liberal MP in her riding of London North Centre. 

Fragiskatos said that as a Crown corporation, Via Rail is able to make its own decisions based on operational needs, but given the circumstances, he believes Maniago's request to reinstate the train is a reasonable one.

"I'm advocating for the restoration of that train at that particular time."

Fragiskatos said travelling by rail is an important part of addressing climate change and he'll continue to push to have the train trip restored with the federal Ministry of Transportation.

There is another option to get to Toronto by rail: taking the GO train from London, though that leaves at 5:30 am and the trip takes four hours, getting into Union Station at 9:30 a.m., after the regular work day has started.