Who Screwed VIA Rail … and Why.
As advocates for passenger rail in the U.S., we look at VIA Rail up north and ask ourselves, How the hell do they do it? With the same lack of government support that shackles Amtrak, how does VIA manage to keep operating their premier train, The Canadian, at such a high standard? It is, after all, still one of the great train rides in the world.
Yes, VIA has had to put up with inaction and underfunding by the Canadian government, just as Amtrak has. But, according to a knowledgable source, it’s worse than that, because private interests colluded with the Canadian freight railroads and, with the tacit approval of the government, they shafted VIA.
For many years, The Canadian, VIA Trains 1 and 2, followed the traditional southerly route over tracks owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad: Toronto, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, through the spiral tunnels and the spectacular Fraser River Canyon, and on into Vancouver.
Above: VIA Rail’s train #1, The Canadian, stopped in Jasper, Alberta, for a crew change and restocking of supplies.
Then, in 1990, railroad moguls emerged from a smoke-filled boardroom and that’s when VIA Rail learned that there was a deal: henceforth they would be operating their premier train over Canadian National track farther to the north, through Jasper instead of Banff, and along a new, less scenic route through areas with much smaller populations, fewer potential passengers. It was a move that made absolutely no sense whatsoever … until people began adding two plus two.
Meet Peter Armstrong, a big time behind-the-scenes player in conservative Canadian politics who is apparently close to the people running the Canadian Pacific Railroad—owners of the rail line through that traditional and more scenic southern rout. And it just so happens that Armstrong also owns the Rocky Mountaineer and, before you could say “What the f——!”, his train was hauling tourists over VIA’s former route—to Banff and Calgary.
How did this change affect The Canadian? Less ridership and a reduction in frequency, to three times a week in the busy summer season and twice weekly during the rest of the year. And yet, despite all the politics and the deals and the change to a less desirable routing, to VIA Rail’s great credit, The Canadian still makes just about everyone’s list of the world’s Top Ten Long-Distance Train Rides. It’s sure as hell on mine.
Nope, the primary train at the time was still the Ocean. Also, the Atlantic was cut in December 1994, not with the Mulroney cuts.
Ironically, although the Government of Canada paid the bill for the line upgrading and extended sidings when CNR was a state owned enterprise, “The Canadian’s” schedule is horribly stabbed on a consistent basis by CN today, even with the fourth night of travel added! Despite efforts last year to hold CN accountable in Parliament, it’s lobbyists had an easy time dismembering that bill.
The other primary long distance route, from Montreal to Halifax, was also changed 1990 from the CP to the CN. The end result was to eliminate service to the largest city in New Brunswick-St. John. Although VIA is proposing new daytime services in the Maritimes, will this eventually be in lieu of the overnight “Ocean”?
Perhaps the new Trudeau government will embrace passenger rail as part of its answer to the needs of mobility for citizens and tourism.