VIA Rail cuts on the horizon, union warns
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The federal government is inflicting death by 1,000 cuts on Canada’s national passenger railway, say workers and rail watchers, who are bracing for an announcement of VIA service reductions.
Cuts have been widely rumoured since the federal government chopped $20 million annually from VIA’s operating budget earlier this year.
Officially, VIA says it has no news of service cuts. But a press release out of its May 29 annual meeting referred to the fine-tuning of “service, schedules and fares to serve markets more efficiently.”
It also mentioned “better integrating passenger rail with other public transportation services.”
GO Transit has made incursions into two areas suspected of being in line for VIA cuts.
NDP transportation critic Olivia Chow, MP for Trinity-Spadina, said she expects one of three daily trains to London, via Kitchener and Stratford, and VIA’s daily train to Niagara could be eliminated.
A joint VIA-Amtrak run to Niagara is, however, expected to continue.
The scenic transcontinental “Canadian” running three times a week between Toronto and Vancouver will also likely be reduced to two trains weekly in the off-season. That train attracted 109,000 riders last year, up 3,000 from 2010, according to VIA’s annual report.
Some Montreal-to-Halifax service could also be on the line, said Heather Grant of CAW National Council 4000, which represents about 2,000 VIA workers. The service carried 134,000 riders last year — about 7,000 more than the previous year.
“The cuts are coming,” she said.
Grant believes that VIA officials have been told by Ottawa to hold announcements until the House of Commons adjourns for the summer to shield the Conservative government from criticism.
Grant said she was among the union representatives who urged VIA officials at a Monday meeting to make an announcement so workers and small-town travellers aren’t left wondering what the future holds.
At least one Ontario mayor was sufficiently worried to contact VIA’s regional office, where he was told there were no cuts pending.
“If there are cuts coming I’d be most concerned,” said Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson, who said the city has worked with VIA to co-ordinate service for Toronto theatre-goers.
“Many of our residents work in Toronto and are looking at that as an opportunity for them to reside in a city like ours with a high quality of life but still also be able to get back and forth to a city,” he said.
It’s ironic that Canada, which was built on railways, is diminishing its passenger train service, said Chow.
“It’s clean, it could be fast. If you look at what every other country in the world is doing they are increasing their train services. They are investing in electric trains, high speed, bullet trains, they are encouraging more people to get on trains. It’s fast, it’s precise, it’s clean and it can be cheap,” she said.
VIA carries 3.8 million of its 4.1 million customers in the Quebec City to Windsor corridor, but that number was down about 12,000 last year, according to its annual report. A VIA spokeswoman said the company does not provide ridership numbers for individual routes within that corridor.