OTTAWA - Backbench MPs from the party that gave Canada its first transcontinental railroad appear to be in a losing, behind-the-scenes struggle over cuts at Via Rail, leaving some communities scrambling for new transit options.
The service reductions have hit smaller towns and cities, particularly in the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, the hardest. It came as cold comfort to some communities last week when Via announced increased service in the Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.
"Regrettably, Via is concentrating on the triangle, and essentially is walking away from the other communities in Ontario and for that matter perhaps across the country," said Carl Zehr, mayor of Kitchener, Ont.
"I understand their problems in terms of their budgets that they're given, but it's also up to Via to present that vision for the federal government so they can become a nation-building railway again."
Via's reduction in service over the past several months has included:
- Cutting in half the "Ocean" line between Halifax and Montreal, via northern New Brunswick, to only three trips per week in each direction.
- The "Canadian" route between Toronto and Vancouver has been reduced from three to two trips per week during the off-season.
- Ontario cities such as Sarnia, Kitchener and Stratford, Ont. have seen key stops reduced.
- Fewers stops at cities such as Belleville or Cornwall along the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal line.
- Twenty per cent of stations are now unstaffed, most recently including Kitchener, Ont. and Sackville, N.B.. In some New Brunswick towns, the disabled are taken by van to Moncton to help board the train.
In places like Bathurst, N.B., the loss of the regional bus service combined with the cuts to Via's Ocean line has created a perfect transportation storm. Acadian Bus Lines has been replaced by Maritime Bus, but the new company doesn't serve all the same places.
Christine Jean of Bathurst says her son won't be home right at Christmas this year from university and a job in Quebec City because of the lack of workable options. In the days immediately around Christmas, the train to Bathurst is operating eastward only on Dec. 23 and returning westward on Dec. 26, 28 or 30.
Via Rail did not add any additional cars for the holiday season.
"We don't have a bus, we don't have a train that works for availability, and the prices for plane tickets are so exorbitant that I wonder who can afford them. We only have Air Canada who comes to Bathurst," said Jean.
"We're hostages, I don't have any word for it. It's very frustrating for people who live outside the big cities."
Via Rail president Marc Laliberte says ridership was just too chronically low on some of the lines, and the Crown Corporation had to make choices.
It now tries to help connect passengers with buses, planes and even other trains. For example, Via and Maritime Bus are now sharing certain terminals and next year will be able to do one-stop booking online.
"We need to find a partner, and we're willing to partner with anybody who would like to use our distribution system, our webservice, and even our stations," Laliberte said in an interview.
"If there is any bus service, taxi or anyone who wants to partner with us, we'd be more than willing to do it."
But mayors, chambers of commerce, student groups and transit advocates, say Via is a national, publicly funded asset that should not be solely focused on the bottom line. They point to the economic spin-offs that regular train travel affords.
Transportation activist Greg Gormick, who is leading a cross-Canada, pro-train tour called "National Dream Renewed," said the cuts are being perceived as a symbol of regional alienation.
"I expected people in the North and the East coast to say we're alienated, but I get the same comments when I go to southeastern Ontario, southwestern Ontario," said Gormick, a former Via employee.
"Everybody feels alienated and they still see the trains as being the ultimate symbol of that. They still feel that the rail passenger service, the passenger trains are one of the important glues that should hold this country together."
Some Tory MPs from the affected communities say they're concerned about the cuts, and are looking for solutions. Via operates at arm's length from government, but Ottawa signs off on its strategic plans.
"In my opinion, what Via really needs to do is to promote ridership, and to take staff away from a station in a major metropolitan area like the Kitchener-Waterloo region does not promote ridership," said Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth.
Said New Brunswick Tory Robert Goguen: "It's not a time of great spending, but sometimes you have to look beyond that in issues of necessity and we haven't arrived at that conclusion yet. I know we will be discussing it with the ministers responsible and we'll move on from there."
But signs of movement from the government on the file are scarce.
The Conservative government cut the subsidy to Via Rail by $41 million over three years in the 2012 budget. Conservative MPs on the Transport committee recently voted down an opposition motion to question Via executives about the cuts, and there has been no appetite for a national transit strategy.
Neither Transport Minister Denis Lebel nor Minister of State Steven Fletcher were available for comment about the cuts.
A spokesman for Fletcher underlined that Via's operations must be in line with demand.
He noted that the government has poured $1 billion since 2007 into renovating trains and upgrading stations.
"VIA is adjusting its schedules to meet passenger demand like all transportation providers, which is responsible use of taxpayer dollars," said Brayden Akers.
New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin said he doesn't buy Via's rationale for service cuts, pointing to third quarter results that show a net income of $16.9 million so far this year.
"It's all nice for the government to say it's arm's length, we can't do anything — that's a nice way to say no," said Godin.
"But when they want to get involved they're not shy. When they wanted to get involved in Canada Post during its lockout, they got involved. They've got to give a mission to Via Rail."
Mayors of cities in southwestern Ontario have met with Via officials over the fall to explain why the service is important to their municipalities.
Stratford, Ont., Mayor Dan Mathieson said asking people in his city to rely on buses or drive to other cities to catch trains is not a solution, nor is it environmentally friendly. The Stratford Festival is currently in talks with a bus company to try to shuttle theatre patrons to and from the city from Toronto.
"Different parts of this country truly rely on public transit as a way for people to live in small and outlying communities and still do business in large metropolitan areas or to visit," said Mathieson.
"I think it's shortsighted, I think it doesn't befit the national vision that the railway was started under."
Zehr of Kitchener says he would like to see more emphasis on promoting different public transit options rather than eliminating them. Although the Kitchener-Waterloo region has a GO Train commuter service to Toronto, Zehr says the loss of the Via frequency is still felt.
"Via will go along with what they have done and people will find other alternatives, but to get them back into rail and public transit, then becomes that much more difficult," said Zehr.
"It's not about one cut, it's about the philosophy that is most important here. That is you have to keep providing a variety of options of public transit, and rail in particular..."