VIA Rail could be starting two new regional train routes in the Maritimes as soon as September of this year, according to CEO Yves Desjardins-Sicilianom who was in town last week presenting at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
VIA’s regional service plan has been around for awhile now, and was originally expected to be up and running for the fall of 2016. The plan will create two short haul routes along The Ocean corridor, which was cut back from six to three return trips per week in the fall of 2012. A Northern New Brunswick leg would leave Campbellton for Moncton five mornings a week with evening returns. A Nova Scotia leg would leave Moncton in the morning for Halifax and return in the evening, also Monday to Friday.
The New Brunswick route partially restores service lost by Northern New Brunswickers when the Ocean was cut. (Curiously, it will also overlap with The Ocean’s remaining service.) The Nova Scotia service also covers the same ground as The Ocean, but on a different schedule, thereby representing an actual, if small, boost in regional service between Halifax and Moncton, post-Ocean cuts.
One of the big problems with the regional service, however, is that it seems destined to be sub-standard.
Google Maps estimates the drive from Campbellton to Moncton to be three hours and 17 minutes, and that’s before the New Brunswick and Canadian governments spend their recently announced $272 million upgrading parts of the existing highway.
The proposed regional train, and indeed the Ocean currently, takes about six hours to cover the same trip, or nearly double the drive time. Reason being, the route uses a portion of track known as the Newcastle Subdivision, which is in such bad shape that CN won’t allow trains to go faster than 30 miles an hour along it, when they used to go more than double that speed.
“It takes nearly six hours for a passenger train to go from Moncton to Campbellton,” says Ted Bartlett, president of Transport Action Atlantic, a group that’s been advocating for public transport since the ’70s. “And 15 years ago it could do it in four. Even back in the days of steam locomotives they did it in four, and they had to stop and take water several times along the route. So this is really unacceptable. It’s never going to persuade people to leave their cars behind.”
Bartlett hopes that as VIA negotiates with CN over access to operate the new service, it will secure further upgrades to the northern New Brunswick tracks and the recommissioning of sidings along the Moncton-Halifax route to help prevent delays due to conflicts with freight traffic.
Sidings are the passing lanes of railroads, and the more you have, the more reliable and faster your service can be. But many sidings have been decommissioned by CN, because its freight business model works best with fewer, longer sidings, says Bartlett. And since the privatized CN has no legislated obligations to facilitate access for passenger service, it has little incentive to change that business model.
Comments by Desjardins-Siciliano last week in Halifax seem to indicate that the focus of any infrastructure improvements might lie between Halifax and Moncton. The six-hour stretch into northern New Brunswick, which is also used by The Ocean, may not see the improvements Bartlett is hoping for.
“We’re working on that plan as we speak today, with our partner, the owner of the railway, in terms of certifying the equipment, the infrastructure investments that are required for them to allow us to use this segment of their trackage,” said Dejardins-Siciliano, referring to CN Rail, the former Crown corporation that was privatized in 1994. “The Campbellton-Moncton piece is not an issue,” he said. “The Halifax-Moncton piece is more problematic because they have more traffic on that segment, so we are working with them on that.”
Desjardins-Siciliano also put in a good word (“feasible”) for Halifax’s potential commuter rail service, though he asked that VIA’s involvement be downgraded from “a proposal” to “a conversation” in media reports. “We have to come up with an approach together,” said Siciliano, “and then approach the infrastructure owner [CN] to have access to those facilities.”
Both Halifax Commuter Rail and restored Maritime regional service are quite frankly small potatoes for VIA Rail right now. Currently, it is proposing a massive upgrade for its “Corridor” service, which runs between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario. The $4 billion, four-year investment is projected to quadruple ridership in the area, eliminating an impressive 500,000 car trips a year.
Meanwhile, New Brunswick continues heavy investment in highways, and Nova Scotia is considering ramping up its own with the possible introduction of more tolls.
“We are pleased there is a start,” says Bartlett, ever the optimist. “We would like to see the day when we have a seven-day-a-week Ocean, supplemented by regional services,” which could include cities where service was cut in the 1990s, like Saint John and Sydney.
As for the current iteration of VIA’s regional service, “they’re really not making the kind of progress that we would like to see and I think that they would like to see,” says Bartlett. “[Desjardins-Siciliano] is a pretty dynamic personality, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d like to be remembered as the guy who rescued passenger rail in Canada from the brink of extinction. He’s making progress, but he needs help, and the political will needs to be there.”