VIA Rail

From Academic Kids

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VIA Rail Canada (also referred to as VIA Rail and VIA; pronounced "vee-ah") is an independent Crown corporation offering intercity passenger rail services in Canada.

VIA Rail operates trains in eight Canadian provinces (all provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island) over a network spanning the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. VIA Rail reportedly carries 3.9 million passengers annually.

VIA Rail's corporate headquarters are in Montreal, Quebec.


Canadian intercity passenger rail, pre-1978

The post-war era saw two developments which would eventually prove disastrous to previously profitable passenger rail transport offered by Canadian National Railways (CNR), Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR), and smaller lines. Taxpayer subsidized airports and nationalized and private airlines were detrimental to long-distance Canadian intercity passenger trains. Short-distance passenger trains also underwent dramatic restructuring with many being eliminated outright following increased use of personal automobiles and the creation of taxpayer subsidized highways such as the Trans-Canada Highway.

In the 1960s it was obvious to both Canadian National (CN - post 1960) and CPR that passenger trains were no longer viable. CPR sought to rid itself of the burden of operating passenger trains, but federal government regulators and politicians balked, forcing CPR to continue running a minimal service through the 1970s. CN on the other hand, being a Crown corporation, was encouraged by the federal government and political interests to invest in passenger trains. Innovative marketing schemes such as Red, White, and Blue fares, new equipment such as scenic dome cars, and services such as Rapido and Turbo trains saw substantial increases in ridership, reversing previous declines.

By the 1970s even CN saw the writing on the wall and sought to rid itself of passenger trains. The decline of passenger rail became a federal election issue in 1974 when the government of Pierre Trudeau promised to implement a nation-wide carrier similar to Amtrak in the United States. The name VIA Rail originated in 1976 as a marketing term for Canadian National's passenger train services. In 1977, CN underwent a dramatic restructuring when it placed various non-core freight railway activities into separate subsidiaries such as ferries under CN Marine and passenger trains under VIA Rail.

Canadian intercity passenger rail, post-1978

On April 1, 1978 Canadian National's passenger subsidiary VIA Rail became a separate Crown corporation, taking with it possession of former CN passenger cars and locomotives. Following several months of negotiation, on October 29, 1978 VIA took over operation of CP passenger train services, along with similar possession of cars and locomotives. Passenger train services which were not included in the creation of VIA Rail included those offered by BC Rail, Algoma Central Railway, Ontario Northland Railway, Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway, various urban commuter train services operated by CN and CP, and remaining CN passenger services in Newfoundland. At this time, VIA did not own any trackage and had to pay right-of-way fees to CN and CP, sometimes being the only user of rural branchlines.

VIA initially had a tremendous variety of equipment and operated routes stretching from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Prince Rupert, British Columbia and north to Churchill, Manitoba. In excess of 150 scheduled trains per week were in operation, including transcontinental services, regional trains, and corridor services.

Intercity passenger rail rebirth

The national reach and new marketing schemes saw ridership spike in the late 1970s and early 1980s to previously unheard-of levels, brought on partially by unprecedented inflation and rising gas prices.

First round of cuts

However increased ridership would not be VIA's saviour. In 1981, Prime Minister Trudeau's government endorsed Minister of Transport Jean-Luc Pepin's plan which saw a budget cut to VIA Rail which slashed 40% of VIA's operations. Gone in an instant were oft-sold out trains such as the Super Continental (which reduced VIA to operating only one transcontinental train, The Canadian) and the popular Atlantic, among others.

VIA also sought to reduce its reliance on 30+ year old second-hand equipment and placed a significant order with Bombardier for new high-speed locomotives and cars which would be used in its corridor trains. The LRC (light, rapid, comfortable) locomotives and cars utilised advanced technology such as active tilt to increase speed, but proved troublesome and would take several years to work out problems.

Restoration of service

The election of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government in 1984 brought a friend to VIA, initially, when several of Mulroney's commitments included rescinding the VIA cuts of 1981 by restoring the Super Continental (under pressure from his western caucus), and the Atlantic (under pressure from his eastern caucus and the formidable then-Saint John mayor Elsie Wayne). Mulroney's government gave VIA funding to refurbish some of its cars, and purchase new locomotives, this time a more reliable model from General Motors Diesel Division.

It was during this time on February 8, 1986 that VIA's eastbound Super Continental collided with a CN freight train near Hinton, Alberta as a result of operator error missing a signal light. The resulting derailment killed 23 people and remains the worst accident in modern Canadian railway history in terms of loss of life.

Second round of cuts

By the late 1980s, inflation and other rising costs were taking their toll on federal budgets and in the Mulroney administration's infamous 1989 budget, VIA again saw its budget slashed, surpassing even the 1981 cuts under Trudeau. Minister of Transport Benoit Bouchard oversaw the reduction in service on January 15, 1990 when VIA's operations were reduced by 55%.

Services such as the Super Continental were cut again, along with numerous disparate rural services such as in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley and Cape Breton Island, western Canada, and in the corridor. The Canadian was also moved from its "home" rails on CP to the northerly CN route (which the Super Continental had used). This was a less-populated (and less scenic) route between Toronto and Vancouver, severing major western cities such as Regina and Calgary from the passenger rail network and flaring deep-rooted western bitterness toward Ottawa.

Officially, the move of the western transcontinental train from the CP to CN line was in order to serve more remote communities, however this move was seen as being politically-motivated. Coincidentally, several prominent members of the governing Progressive Conservatives were elected along the CN route. It was also notable that Harvie André, one of Alberta's federal cabinet ministers who represented Calgary, was fairly public about the fact that he did not care if he never saw a passenger train again in his life.

Emerging out of these disastrous cuts, VIA was a much smaller company and immediately took to rationalizing its fleet of cars and locomotives, resulting in a fleet of refurbished stainless steel (HEP-1 and HEP-2 rebuilds, defined as "Head End Power") and LRC cars, as well as rationalizing its locomotive fleet with GM and Bombardier (LRC) units.

Third round of cuts

VIA was not spared from further cutbacks in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government elected in 1993. Minister of Finance Paul Martin's first budget in 1994 saw further VIA cuts which saw the popular Atlantic dropped from the schedule, focusing the eastern transcontinental service on the Ocean.

This move was seen as somewhat controversial and politically motivated as the principal cities benefiting from the Atlantic's service were Sherbrooke, Quebec and Saint John, New Brunswick, where coincidentally the only two Progressive Conservative Party Members of Parliament in Canada were elected in the infamous 1993 federal election which saw Chrétien's Liberal Party take power. The Ocean service which was preserved operates on trackage between Montreal and Halifax running through the lower St. Lawrence River valley and northern New Brunswick. The Minister of Transport in Chrétien's government at the time, Douglas Young, was elected from a district that included Bathurst, New Brunswick, on the Ocean's route. Interestingly, a remote VIA service to Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, the Chaleur was also spared from being cut at this time, despite having less ridership than the Atlantic.

A renaissance?

By the late 1990s, rising environmental concerns focusing on reducing dependence on automobiles and airplanes (see Kyoto Accord), as well as rail-friendly Minister of Transport David Collenette, saw modest funding increases to VIA. Corridor services were improved with new and faster trains, a weekly tourist train The Bras d'Or returned VIA service to Cape Breton Island for the first time since the 1990 cuts, and a commitment was made to continue operating on Vancouver Island, however western Canada continued to languish with the only service provided by The Canadian.

In a significant new funding program dubbed "Renaissance," passenger cars were purchased second-hand from a failed Great Britain-France train (using the Channel Tunnel rail link), and new diesel locomotives were purchased from General Electric (to replace the retiring LRC units). This expansion to VIA's fleet has permitted scheduling flexibility, particularly in the corridor. Additionally, many passenger stations have been remodelled into rider-friendly destinations, with several hosting co-located transit and regional bus hubs for various municipalities.

On October 24, 2003, federal Minister of Transport David Collenette announced $700 million (CAD) in new funding over the next 5 years. This funding was far below the $3 billion (CAD) needed to implement a high-speed rail proposal in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor nicknamed VIA-Fast, however the funding was intended to "provide for faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger service across Canada.... [preserving] the option for higher speed rail, such as the Via Fast proposal" said Collenette. This new project was to be called "Renaissance II."[1] ( Critics of "Renaissance II" noted that the majority of spending would take place in the corridor services and not add new trains or improved scheduling to Atlantic and Western Canada.

Fourth round of cuts

On December 18, 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin announced a freeze in federal spending on all major capital projects, including VIA's five-year $700 million capital investment "Renaissance II" program announced just six weeks earlier by outgoing Prime Minister Chrétien's administration. According to the company, the Transport Minister will be reviewing its plans in 2004 and will then decide whether or not the funding will be made available. Critics of Martin's cuts noted that he was in a distinct conflict of interest where he and his family through Canada Steamship Lines and various subsidiary and affiliated companies, had a significant investment in the Voyageur Colonial Bus Lines, an intercity bus line in Quebec and eastern Ontario which was a key competitor with VIA Rail.

VIA's role in the Sponsorship Scandal

The federal Auditor General's report released publicly on February 10, 2004 showed what appeared to be a criminal misdirection of government funds intended for advertising to key Quebec-based supporters of the Liberal Party of Canada. (See Sponsorship scandal). Included in the Auditor General's report was the fact that VIA Rail Canada was used as one of several federal government departments, agencies, and Crown corporations to funnel these illicit funds. Forced to act on the Auditor General's report due to its political implications, Prime Minister Paul Martin's administration suspended VIA Rail President Marc LeFrançois on February 24, 2004, giving him an ultimatum of several days to defend himself against allegations in the report or face further disciplinary action.

Several days later, during LeFrançois's suspension, a former VIA Rail marketing department employee, Myriam Bédard, revealed she was fired several years earlier when she questioned company billing practices in dealing with advertising companies. She was publicly belittled by VIA Rail Chief Executive Officer Jean Pelletier in national media on February 27, 2004. Pelletier retracted his statements but on March 1, 2004, Pelletier was fired. On March 5, 2004, after failing to adequately defend himself against the allegations in the Auditor General's report, Lefrançois was fired as well.

VIA Rail today

Despite its role as a political football in both the administration and operation of the company, VIA continues to operate transcontinental service, provided by The Canadian, running three times a week between Toronto and Vancouver in the west, and by the Ocean, operating six times a week between Montreal and Halifax in the east.

International connections are provided by agreement with Amtrak and include the Maple Leaf, operating between New York's Pennsylvania Station (Penn Station) and Toronto's Union Station via Albany and Buffalo. The Adirondack is an exclusive Amtrak train operating between Montreal's Central Station (Gare Centrale) and New York City's Penn Station. There are numerous daily trains operated in the heavily populated Quebec-Windsor Corridor which extends from Quebec City through Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and London to Windsor. Service between Toronto and Montreal to Ottawa is included in this grouping. There is also an overnight train operated between Toronto and Montreal, named the Enterprise.

While VIA Rail is an independent federal Crown corporation mandated to operate as a business, it is hindered by the fact that it was created by an Order-in-Council of the Privy Council, and not from an actual legislation passed by Parliament. If VIA were enabled by actual legislation, the company could be permitted to seek funding on the open money markets as other Crown corporations such as CN have done in the past. It is largely for this reason that VIA continues to answer first to its political masters, as opposed to the business decisions needed to ensure the viability of intercity passenger rail service.



Passenger Cars

  • "Nightstar" service by European Nightstock Services


Demo units

See also

Railway companies that used to carry passengers include:

Other publically owned regional passenger carriers:


External links

Further reading

  • Allen, Tom. "Rolling Home: A Cross-Canada Railroad Memoir." Toronto: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 067088473-1.

Template:North America class 1fr:Via Rail Canada


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