Binkley Report on Via Rail


Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

VIA Rail is a model for government-delivered services

Hard work wins in reality of 21st Century travel

Here’s some recognition of that accomplishment
By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, modified from the original photo by Andrew Dolch.

VIA Rail recently announced it would be reducing frequency of some of its passenger trains because they weren’t being fully used or were duplicating service offered by GO Transit in Southwestern Ontario.

At the same time, VIA said during its 2012 annual meeting in Winnipeg that it’s costing the federal treasury less while offering better service to travelers.
The federal government had invested nearly $1 billion in VIA to upgrade its locomotives, coaches, stations and expand track capacity. VIA intends to put this investment to good work in the coming years.
It will be offering “more departures where growth potential is strong,” VIA spokesman Malcolm Andrews says. “There will be another new Ottawa-Toronto round-trip by year-end, and a new Montreal-Quebec City round-trip either by year-end or in early 2013. Plus others, especially in Ontario-Quebec triangle, again likely in 2013.”
VIA is also striving to improve its connections with transit operators such as GO Transit and AMT in Montreal. They will be posted on its website “That will be just the start. Door-to-door seamless connections are the ultimate goal. But in that process, we also are working to avoid duplication of services, and hence better allocating resources.”
In other words, VIA is making smart business decisions. There’re many environmental reasons for supporting passenger rail, but it doesn’t have to be a financial sink hole.
And until governments are ready to bankroll high-speed trains, it’s the best bet going. So instead of a lot of negative publicity for reducing the frequency of underused trains, maybe VIA should be getting some kudos for being a responsible public corporation.
It could be a model worth considering whenever governments wish to get out of the business of operating businesses. The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. is another example worth looking at. They stand out in contrast to the Ornge helicopter fiasco in Ontario and other sorry examples across the country.
VIA is introducing a number of features that should appeal to travelers. Among them are E-ticketing, which will begin this fall, to allow customers to go paperless. VIA is testing bar codes on smart phones on Montreal-Quebec City to prepare for the national rollout.
The VIA web site is being updated to allow consumers to go fare shopping, he adds. A prospective traveler will be able to view “all the available fares, and quickly switch dates to see if a better fare is available one day prior or later.” At the same time, VIA is introducing a new option called Escape Fare through the website.
Travelers will also be seeing more and more of the renovated LRC passenger cars as well as newly-refurbished Renaissance cars equipped with enhanced accessibility for special needs passengers.
In a statement, VIA says it’s entering the next phase of its modernization. It will maintain service on all the lines it currently operates on while focusing its resources “on improving service and attracting more customers on routes where demand is strong and growing.”
VIA President and CEO Marc Laliberté said, “The travel market is evolving and service providers must keep up.” VIA wants to match public demand for “safe, efficient and reliable passenger rail transportation and value to customers and taxpayers.
“By the end of the year, we will complete work to expand track capacity between Montréal and Toronto, where demand for more rail service is high,” he notes. “We will begin operating a completely refurbished fleet of modern, high-efficiency locomotives coast-to-coast. We will start introducing vastly improved passenger cars offering more accessibility for Canadians with disabilities.
“We will be opening new and renovated passenger stations at key points across our network, and offer E-services so that passengers can better connect in the transportation network and work while on board our trains. Adjusting our services to better align with customer demand is an important step in our modernization — making sure we offer the right level of service to meet customer needs today, and building capacity to serve more customers in markets where demand will grow in the future.”
Laliberte said the demand for seats on the Atlantic Limited and The Canadian drops off outside the summer travel season and VIA’s reductions were a reflection of that fact.
During the last two years, VIA has worked to improve its operations, financial performance and service reliability. It has reduced its need  for government support by $30 million a year while building “an extraordinary pool of dedicated talent … to continue delivering significant improvements to passenger rail services, for its customers and taxpayers.”
The service reductions will lead to the loss of about 200 full-time positions, a decrease of about 9%, he explains. “Over the last three years, VIA Rail’s annual attrition rate has been, on average, 8%.
VIA also worked at “streamlining operations to increase productivity and customer value, and eliminate waste.” In addition to E-ticketing, VIA is introducing GPS enhanced train arrival and departure information.
VIA has worked hard to deal with the reality of travel in the 21st Century. Above is some recognition of that accomplishment.