Governments urged to get off 'caboose' and save Ocean rail service

A new report says that without urgent improvements to Via Rail's Ocean service, including the restoration of a daily schedule, the passenger service will die.

Passenger rail advocates call for major spending on Via service through northern New Brunswick

The Ocean serves the Halifax-Montreal corridor through Moncton and northern New Brunswick. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

A new report says that without urgent improvements to Via Rail's Ocean service, including the restoration of a daily schedule, the passenger service will die.

The rail link between Montreal and Halifax stops in Moncton, Miramichi, Bathurst, Campbellton and other smaller communities in northern New Brunswick.

But Greg Gormick, a Toronto rail consultant and policy adviser, said the train has been getting worse over the past decade, particularly in the last five years.

"The train is rotting right out," said Gormick, author of the report called Reviving Via Rail Canada's Maritime Services. 

"The equipment that they bought, which I would call a good intention gone wrong, has proven to be a real Achilles heel."

In addition to deteriorating equipment, the Ocean also suffers from competition from discount air travel, Via's high fares compared with air, and the vastly reduced service to the Maritimes.

Gormick wrote the report this year for Save our Trains in Northern Brunswick, and in 2015 also did a study for Transport Action Canada on how to revitalize passenger rail service in Canada. 

Calls for 4 trains

"It's time for government to get off their 'cabooses' or there will be no passenger train service in Atlantic Canada," he said in an interview with Information Morning Moncton, Gormick said.

Serious investments need to made in the Maritime service, he said. 

Via would need four 10-car Viewliner trains, costing about $203 million, to restore daily service between Montreal and Halifax, but the expense would pay off, he said.

"It would not cost in the end — it would pay," Gormick said. "It would reduce the costs, it would boost the ridership, it would boost the revenue potential of the train, it would fix it for 30 years."

A big mistake, he said, was made in 2012, when Via Rail cut the Ocean schedule in half, dropping service to three days a week from six.

We're not able to hop on the train and go down to these appointments.-Jane Van Horne

"That was like shooting themselves in the foot," Gormick said.

"A train that runs tri-weekly is always more expensive than a train that runs six days a week."    

He said he's seeing a similar battle to keep a passenger train in southwestern Ontario, where aging equipment, a lack of support and reductions in service are constant problems.

"They're turning people away from that train because it doesn't run often enough and they don't have enough equipment to satisfy the demand on the days that it does run," he said. 

No plans to increase frequency

Jeff Hull, spokesman with the New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said the province "continues to be an advocate of passenger rail service in New Brunswick to the federal government."

Hull wrote that Bill Fraser, the minister, has met with the president and CEO of Via Rail on several occasions to voice support for better rail service.

Hull also suggested Via wants to make the service better.

"We are aware of Via's commitment to strengthen its service and welcome initiatives that will enhance public transportation options in New Brunswick," he said.

Mariam Diaby, a spokesperson for Via Rail, said the company has no plans to increase the Ocean's frequency but is considering other service improvements. 

Diaby said 77,000 travellers on average use the service every year.

"All of our equipment is inspected and maintained on a predetermined schedule in an effort to assure reliability. The equipment currently used for the Ocean service rigorously respects all regulatory safety requirements."

A need for daily link

Jane Van Horne of Save Our Trains in Northern New Brunswick said many people in the north are forced to travel to Moncton for health care, studies or shopping, and a daily train service would help. Some people don't have vehicles.

"We're not able to hop on the train and go down to these appointments," said Van Horne, who is also on the board of Transport Action Atlantic.

"In many cases appointments happen at the last minute. It's not something you can plan for two, three days in advance."

"We need daily transportation," said Van Horne.

With files from Information Morning Moncton