OTTAWA - A New Brunswick man is taking Via Rail to court for cutting in half the service on its main Maritime route, saying the company is violating federal policy to advance economic growth in rural and urban areas.
While Widler Jules pursues an injunction in Quebec Superior Court to restore the train schedule to his area, the Conservative government is defending Via's cuts.
Via Rail rolled out dozens of changes over the last few months, reducing frequency to cities across Ontario and the Maritimes in particular, and leaving more stations unstaffed. Last week, it announced increased service on the Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto route.
Several Tory MPs have told The Canadian Press they had concerns about reductions in their communities. Via and the government have also been lobbied by many mayors, transit advocates and the opposition.
"Communities feel they have been abandoned. Where are the Conservative members from these communities? Why aren't they speaking out?" NDP transport critic Olivia Chow said during question period in the House of Commons on Monday.
"Why are the Conservatives allowing Via Rail to walk away from its mandate to provide service nationwide?"
Minister of State for Transport Steven Fletcher offered no indication the government intends to push Via for changes.
"Via Rail is an arm's-length Crown corporation that develops schedules based on demand. The demand in those routes has gone down, and some of those routes are duplicated by the GO Train (operated in southern Ontario by the province), some are duplicated by bus service," Fletcher told the Commons.
"Via Rail provides a service, but so do other services in the same vein. So no matter what, Canadians will be able to get from Point A to Point B and we will ensure that taxpayers' money is respected."
But some Canadians like Widler Jules say they don't have access to other services.
Jules, a management consultant with clients and an ill parent in Montreal, lives in Atholville, N.B. The local bus company recently closed its doors, and a new one is not serving the area. Jules cannot drive to Montreal because he would leave his family without a car.
Jules says the new Halifax-Montreal or "Ocean" line schedule, travelling three days a week, is inadequate for the needs of the region. He hopes the court case will force Via to shed some light on its decision-making.
"There's no public transit in (New Brunswick's) Acadian peninsula, it's a zone that's totally locked," said Jules, who ran for the NDP in the last federal election.
"The train service has been cut in half, we have fewer seats available and we have fewer options. ... These are not areas that are very rich in terms of jobs. People need to move around for work or for school."
Jules' case is built around the National Transportation Policy in the Canada Transportation Act. The policy states that the transportation system should "advance the well-being of Canadians and enable competitiveness and economic growth in both urban and rural areas throughout Canada."
It goes on to say that "regulation and strategic public intervention are used to achieve economic, safety, security, environmental or social outcomes that cannot be achieved satisfactorily by competition and market forces."
The Via Rail Canada Act, however, speaks only of the provision of a "safe and efficient passenger rail service in Canada."
Via Rail spokeswoman Mylene Belanger said Via understands the reactions of the travelling public in the Maritimes.
"It is however a pondered business decision of Via Rail which reflects the actual decrease in ridership as well as the necessity for Via Rail to reduce its recurring losses on this route," said Belanger.
"It is unfortunate that Via Rail has to use scarce resources to defend such a legal action."
In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Via in a case brought by disabled Canadians who found the train cars inaccessible. Via was forced to upgrade its trains, but this year pulled the staff who would have normally assisted people in wheelchairs from some of its stations. Twenty per cent of stations are now unstaffed.
In certain cities in New Brunswick, Via is taking disabled passengers by van to Moncton for boarding assistance.