VIA Rail Canada five-year plan says third 'Canadian' trip won't be restored, casts doubt on train's future

Corporate plan calls flagship train 'no longer sustainable' in current form
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The eastbound Canadian makes an early-morning stop at Jasper, Alberta, in October 2018. A VIA Rail Canada report calls the current business model for the train "no longer sustainable."
Bob Johnston

MONTREAL — VIA Rail Canada sees no prospect for restoring a third full Toronto-Vancouver round trip of its flagship long-distance train, the Canadian, and says the train’s current business model is “no longer sustainable,” although it does not indicate plans to discontinue service.

Those assessments are part of the summary for the passenger carrier’s 2020-24 corporate plan, now posted on the VIA Rail Canada website.

Other portions of the plan detail ongoing efforts to create VIA’s own dedicated right-of-way for portions of its Toronto-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, a project known as High Frequency Rail; address the need to ensure access to Toronto Union Station and Montreal Central Station, where 46% of the company’s passengers begin or end their trips; and note the need for access agreements with host railroads that “feature best practices regarding punctuality and capacity management,” in light of significant on-time performance issues. In 2019, only 67.3% of corridor trains were on time, while the Canadian’s on-time performance was 55.9%.

In the financial portion of the report, VIA asks that its base funding level be increased from $146.8 million to $300 million, with “extended funding” of $550 million, or $110 million per year, to address a current funding gap and allow for long-term planning throughout the five-year period of the plan.

The VIA document says the Canadian’s model has become unsustainable “predominantly due to host railroad actions,” leaving a service that is not capable of serving shorter-distance travelers or the tourism market. Poor on-time performance, with delays up to 43 hours, along with lengthening the train’s schedule by 10 hours, “have halted four years of revenue growth while simultaneously increasing operating costs.” VIA says it needs to explore options that would revitalize the Canadian and other services in Western Canada, but offers no indication what such a revitalization might entail.

Restoration of the third weekly round trip of the Canadian, which ended in 2019, is not possible because the current schedule would require five trainsets of VIA’s head-end-power equipped stainless steel heritage railcars to meet that schedule. And with some of the HEP cars from the Canadian slated to be moved to the Montreal-Halifax Ocean — as a result of service modifications necessarily with the loss of a turning loop for the train in Halifax — there will not be enough of the HEP heritage equipment to create a fifth trainset.

Further, a planned modernization program of the heritage fleet will be reduced in scope because of “unexpected issues,” the report says. It later notes that with the Budd-built stainless steel cars approaching or exceeding 70 years of age, it must explore replacement of that fleet.

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