New Brunswick

Passenger train activist is 'cold and lonely on the station platform'

A group that pushes for better passenger rail service is wondering what happened to plans by Via Rail for new regional routes in the Maritimes.

What happened to Via Rail's plans to expand service in the Maritimes, wonders Transport Action Atlantic

A Via Rail train at the station in Moncton. (Submitted by Ted Bartlett)

A group that pushes for better passenger rail service is wondering what happened to plans by Via Rail for new regional routes in the Maritimes.

Company president Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said in 2015 that proposals were being considered for launch in 2016.

Canada doesn't end at Quebec City.- Ted Bartlett, Transport Action Atlantic

They included runs from Moncton to Halifax and from Campbellton to Moncton, first thing every morning, with return trips in the evening.

"It's getting cold and lonely out on that station platform, waiting for that train that hasn't come yet," Ted Bartlett, president of Transport Action Atlantic, told Information Morning Moncton.

Bartlett said several prospective start dates have come and gone and Via hasn't said anything about those plans in a long time.

"The only encouraging sign was about a year ago they sent a set of 60-year-old [rail diesel car] equipment down to the region to do a few test runs around Bathurst.

"Reportedly, everything went OK, but the point is nothing has happened."

Bartlett isn't very disappointed. He would rather Via restore daily service on the Ocean run, between Montreal and Halifax.

Since 2012, it's only run three days a week — Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Bartlett said daily service is essential if Via wants to build ridership in the region and be a viable link between Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country.

Even more so, he said, now that the federal government has announced a major investment to re-equip the service in the corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont.

"Canada doesn't end at Quebec City," Bartlett said.

Traditionally, Maritimers have been strong users of passenger rail, out of proportion to the population, he said.

Big reduction since 1970s

And there used to be twice daily service on the Ocean route in the late 1970s, when there was also a Halifax-to-Montreal service that went through a small part of Maine.

"The passenger rail network that we have in this country now is just a shadow of its former self," Bartlett said, blaming successive governments for not making the Crown corporation a priority.

In the last four years, though, the provincial and federal governments have announced $35 million to keep rail services in northern New Brunswick going.

Ted Bartlett, the volunteer president of Transport Action Atlantic, says the region has lost in the way of passenger rail service since the 1970s, and Via has been slow to make improvements recently. (CBC/Information Morning Moncton)

And in a 2015 submission to the Canada Transportation Act review, the Atlantic Canada ministers of transportation acknowledged passenger rail service may be the only viable transportation option for many residents of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and will only become more important as the population ages.

They recommended the federal government provide resources for Via Rail to rebuild the service.

Bartlett said it wouldn't take much more money to bring back daily Ocean runs. He suggested it could possibly be done using existing equipment from the Quebec-Windsor corridor.

"This is equipment that is old, but it was built to last. … It can be refurbished. 

"What the Ocean is presently operating is totally unsuitable to this climate. … It was built to operate in the U.K. and it is showing its age and it's becoming increasingly unreliable."

'Great way to get around'

Bartlett said trains could be a very reliable means of transportation again if Via would "get back to basics" and operate on a schedule that works for people.

"It's a great way to get around this country of ours in the wintertime," he said.

"A snowstorm hits and the airports are closed. The Cobequid Pass becomes a real challenge. But, on the days that it's running … Via just keeps plugging right along."

Via Rail did not respond to CBC's requests for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday.

A Via Rail train in Halifax. (Submitted by Ted Bartlett)

But according to its 2017-2021 corporate plan, the new regional routes are "pending infrastructure updates and equipment testing by the host railway."

Via Rail sees the new regional routes as a way to increase frequencies and lower operating costs by using a smaller fleet with coach seating.

The report also mentions that the reduction in the Ocean schedule in 2012 resulted in about a 30 per cent drop in revenue by 2016, to $9.9 million.

Direct operating expenses fell by about a third, to $21.9 million.

At the same time, ridership fell by 40 per cent, to 78,000.

And revenue per passenger increased by 33.9 per cent.

In all, the Ocean's "negative contribution" to Via Rail's bottom line "moderately improved" from $13.6 million to $12 million.