Via Rail's Maritime service is back on aging N.B. track
No date for return to full service for Montreal-Halifax route
New Brunswickers can once again travel by train to the rest of Canada, if they're willing to embark on a lengthy journey of nearly 18 hours from Moncton to Montreal.
Via Rail's Ocean line, which runs from Montreal to Halifax, was suspended for more than a year during the pandemic.
The Ocean returned on Aug. 11 with once-a-week service, including regular stops at stations in Moncton, Miramichi, Bathurst and Campbellton.
But the train travels under 50 kilometres an hour on a stretch of aging track between Rogersville and Bathurst, according to a rail advocacy group.
Transport Action Atlantic has been pushing for federal funding to improve the route.
"Nothing's been done," said Ted Bartlett, the organization's president.
"The bottom line is it takes almost two hours longer now for the train to go from Moncton to Campbellton than it did 20 years ago."
Tracks in northern New Brunswick have faced threats of closure over the past decade, with the province providing funds to Canadian National to save sections facing imminent closure. At times, the company has issued go-slow orders for parts of its New Brunswick network.
The speed at which passenger trains can travel depends on the rail-line owner and track inspections, Via Rail said in a statement to CBC News.
"We remain committed to serving communities in Eastern Canada and our goal is — and has always been — to provide, to the best of our abilities, a service that can respond to the needs of our passengers," the Crown corporation said.
CN, the owner of the tracks, disputes the allegation the train has been forced to slow down in places. It said it continually assesses the Newcastle subdivision, which runs from Campbellton to the outskirts of Moncton.
"This subdivision is safe and frequently inspected and there are no speed restrictions," spokesperson Mathieu Gaudreault wrote in an email.
No turnaround loop
The condition of the rail line is not the only challenge slowing down the Ocean line.
After arriving in Halifax, the train would normally turn around before beginning the return trip to Montreal. But Via Rail lost access to a turnaround route after land was reclaimed by the city's port in November 2020.
That means the train has to return to Moncton in reverse.
Bartlett said reversing the route is creating operational issues for the line's aging fleet and resulting in additional delays. It can no longer use panoramic rail cars, which are designed to travel in one direction.
"It effectively is running backwards to Montreal, which means many of the passengers are running rearwards — which is not the way passengers normally like to travel," he said.
Travelling the entire line from Halifax to Montreal takes about 20 hours — when it runs on time.
Via Rail said it is now using a hybrid train with two locomotives allowing for back-to-back operations. It also said it plans to work on modernizing and refurbishing 71 train cars on regional and long-distance routes, which include the Ocean line.
Via Rail said in July it planned to resume progressively with one weekly round trip. The Crown corporation has yet to announce an official date for the return of full service, or three trains per week.
The Ocean operated six times a week until its schedule was cut in half in 2012.
Bartlett said demand for the current once-a-week train has been strong since the service returned to New Brunswick.
"I was just amazed by the number of people waiting to board, it was a peak Christmas season type crowd," he said in an interview.
Campbellton Mayor Ian Comeau said the service is well used by residents in the region, ranging from students travelling to Halifax for university, to seniors going to Moncton for medical appointments. He said slow speeds and service reductions are concerning, especially after hearing promises of funding to improve the tracks.
"I remember being on council back and then and we applauded that move," he said. "But here we are 2021 and nothing has been done."
The Campbellton station draws additional passengers as a hub for the Gaspé coast. A shuttle bus from the station transports passengers to destinations in the Quebec region.
Comeau said the reduced schedule is discouraging and he hopes it doesn't get pushed back again.
"It's our way of transportation for a lot of people," he said.