I’d like to discuss the need for VIA Rail service in Canada, and especially where (and how often) it should operate. I am going to do so in three blogs, this one primarily discussing Western and Atlantic Canada, one specifically on VIA’s busy Windsor-Quebec City Corridor. and a third one on equipment and funding.
Canada and trains are linked tightly when we consider the history of the country. The Intercolonial Railway linked the Atlantic Provinces of News Brunswick and Nova Scotia with Quebec, and ultimately Ontario during the early years of Conferation. It connected with the Grand Trunk Railway.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was famously built to operate out to the West Coast to provide a transontinental railway service and to bring British Columbia into the Conferation. It also served a means of protection from the U.S. being able to claim the Canadian west, as well as opening up the west to immigration.
Eventually, Canada would see two main railways operating across the country: the privately owned Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the crown corporation Canadian National Railway (CNR), the latter of which took over other railways. Both would provide passenger and freight service across the country.
In the 1950s both major railways brought in new transcontinental trains on a daily schedule: The CNR offered the Super Continental with new cars from the Canadian Car & Foundry (CC&F), while the CPR offered The Canadian with stainless steel equipment and dome cars built by the Budd Company.
Service between Montreal and Halifax was offered by two trains on the CNR: the Scotian Limited and the Ocean Limited. The later is still operated by VIA Rail. The CPR offered the Atlantic Limited between Montreal and Saint John N.B. with a ship connection to Digby N.S. and a train connection to Halifax.
Many trains operated in Central Canada and were operated either independently by the CNR or CPR, or jointly as a ‘pool train.’
In 1978, due to the operating losses being incurred by both the CNR and the CPR, the Federal Government created VIA Rail to take over passenger services of both railways. It continued to run many of the former trains offered by both railways. Skip forward to 2013, and we now have one transcontinental train, The Canadian on either a two day a week schedule (during the winter) or three day a week schedule (during the summer) but on the CNR mainline instead of the CPR’s mainline. In the East, the Ocean has been decreased to a tri weekly service.
Let’s first look at service in Western Canada. Currently, VIA Rail offers The Canadian on a two day a week service during the winter and three days a week during the summer. It operates over the CNR mainline between Vancouver B.C. and Toronto Ont. via Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Sioux Lookout. VIA also offers some service from Winnipeg Manitoba to Churchill Manitoba twice a week (three days a week between The Pas Manitoba and Churchill) and the Skeena on the Prince Rupert B.C. to Jasper, Alberta run three days a week.
My recommendation is to restore The Canadian as a daily train on its original run on the CPR mainline via Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, and Thunder Bay. Daily service would then be offered on the CNR mainline with a restored Super Continental. Both trains would operate daily year round. The Winnipeg to Churchill run, once known as the ‘Hudson Bay‘ would be restored to three day a week service on the full route. The Skeena would remain as is. Service would also be restored on the Calgary to Edmonton run on a daily basis.
VIA Rail currently provides a train three day a week between Sudury and White River as a ‘remote’ service as there are areas along the route that do not have road connections. This train service should survive even with the return of The Canadian along the North Shore of Lake Superior. This service provides local services, while The Canadian would not have to provide the service. also, I would add a train through Northern Ontario and into Manitoba – between Winnipeg and Minaki – in order to allow the restored Super Continental the opportunity to bypass many of those stations.
Service in Eastern Canada is currently offered on four routes: the Montreal to Halifax run the Ocean, the Montreal-Gaspé Chaleur, and the two runs to Northern Quebec – from Montreal to Senneterre, and Montreal to Jonquière. All four routes are offered on a three day a week service.
In my opinion, The Ocean should be offered on a daily schedule with a restored Atlantic also offered on a daily schedule, but only Montreal-Moncton which is where the highest demand is currently.
In Atlantic Canada, service would be restored between Halifax and Sydney, while a new local train would run between Halifax and Moncton, allowing the Ocean to maintain a faster run between Halifax and Moncton.
The Chaleur would be retained on a three day a week schedule, unless demand increase. The two trains to Northern Quebec would also remain at the same levels.
One last service will be included in this part, and that is service between Toronto and northern Ontario. The Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) provided a day train between Toronto and Cochrane six days a week until the end of September 2012, and the ONR and VIA operated an overnight train along a similar route until the major cutbacks at VIA in early 1990. I would recommend VIA providing a day train between Toronto and North Bay (the ONR owns the tracks north of there), as well as an overnight train up to Cochrane. This would provide northern Ontario with restored train service and connections to the rest of te country.
Part Two will deal with VIA Rail’s Corridor service.