Toronto

Cobourg commuters demand Via Rail reinstate 'essential' train service as they head back to the office

Pre-pandemic, Cobourg, Ont. residents Doug Henson and Lance McIntosh's daily commute was simple. They'd hop on the 7 a.m. Via train at the local station and arrive in downtown Toronto just over an hour later. But with plummeting ridership at the start of the pandemic, Via Rail suspended that service and has yet to reinstate it, even as some commuters return to work.

Via Rail says all services paused due to pandemic will return by June 2022

Doug Henson and Lance McIntosh are among the Cobourg commuters demanding Via Rail reinstate its 7 a.m. commuter train service immediately. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Before COVID-19 emerged, Cobourg residents Doug Henson and Lance McIntosh's daily commute was simple. They'd hop on the 7 a.m. Via train at the local station and arrive in downtown Toronto just over an hour later.

But with plummeting ridership at the start of the pandemic, Via Rail suspended that service and has yet to reinstate it, even as some commuters return to work.

Now, Henson and McIntosh say their journey, which they often take together, has turned into a stressful grind, including a 45-minute drive — on a good day — on the busy Highway 401 to catch the GO Train in Oshawa. It then takes an hour to get to Toronto. All-in-all, their travel time has nearly doubled.

They're among a group of Cobourg commuters demanding Via Rail reinstate their "essential" morning train service immediately. They estimate before the pandemic, about 140 people got on the 7 a.m. train each day. 

"We're a little bit frustrated, a little bit angry, but mostly I'm worried about the next three to four months driving from Cobourg to Oshawa and back in the winter weather," said McIntosh, an accountant who's in the office about twice a week.

"In fact, driving home the other day, a big panel flew off a truck directly in front of us. A major accident just missed us. So, you know, of course, we're worried about that," added Henson, who's back to work every day running a downtown firm's printing equipment.

Via Rail says ridership dropped by over 95 per cent at the peak of the pandemic but is now seeing steady demand. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Carey Marsden who lives near Alderville First Nation, where she grew up, said she saved both time and money driving the 20 minutes to Cobourg to take the Via train compared to driving an hour into Oshawa to catch the GO Train. But since the summer, she's also been enduring that "terrible" two-and-a-half hour commute.

"The first few times when I went into work, when I got home I was completely exhausted," Marsden said. 

Full service to return by June 2022

The Canadian Crown corporation is mandated to run trains between cities across the country and currently runs seven along its Quebec-Windsor corridor, stopping in Cobourg daily, with the first train of the day arriving at Union Station after 1 p.m. 

Via Rail told CBC News in a statement that it's gradually bringing back service, balancing increasing demand with financial impacts. The Quebec-Windsor Corridor will return to 85 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels by April and full service by June.

Meanwhile, Cobourg Mayor John Henderson said he and other mayors in the area are pushing Via for answers and immediate action. 

"We have the station and commuters, and you have the train, so explain to me again why you can't reinstate that morning service that's so critical to our needs," Henderson said.

He noted the town isn't serviced by the provincial transit agency Metrolinx and no longer has Greyhound buses. That leaves residents who work in the GTA with no other option than to drive on the highway for a good chunk of their commute.

"We are all working on climate change and trying to reduce our carbon footprint," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

A 'short-sighted' strategy, researcher says

Willem Klumpenhouwer, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto's Transit Analytics Lab, agrees. 

"I think it's a little short-sighted and unfortunate that there's not a push to restore service," said Klumpenhouwer. "And it runs completely counter to the narrative we need to get people onto public transit and shift away from using the 401 for these kinds of trips." 

Other transit agencies, including the provincial Crown corporation Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission, have offered "fairly frequent" service throughout the pandemic, he said, adding Via should be doing the same. 

"Transit agencies have sort of generally realized that yes, their ridership goes down," said Klumpenhouwer. "But the answer is not always to just cut service because it becomes a negative feedback loop."

He said while there may be an initial lag in ridership when Via resumes its morning train, its only a matter of time before the commuters return.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now