Back on track

4 minutes

Montreal centre-ville

2020 was anything but business-as-usual at VIA Rail, but company executives of the Montreal-based company are excited about the future.

In the good old days, not so long ago in 2019, about 4,000 people would pass through Montreal’s Gare Centrale daily,” says VIA Rail president and CEO Cynthia Garneau. Indeed, business was booming nationwide for the Crown corporation, with ridership up 30 percent over a five-year period and annual revenue topping $400 million for the first time.

A former aviation-industry executive who had previously served at Bombardier and Bell Helicopter Textron, Garneau assumed her current role in May 2019 and was quickly assimilating the finer points of passenger rail, even touring parts of the country by train (“almost incognito,” she says) to personally meet both employees and fellow travellers.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, passenger service all but screeched to a halt. Suddenly, Central Station, like downtown Montreal itself, was eerily quiet. There had even been an earlier taste of crisis management for the companyback in February, when First Nations blockades of rail lines in protest over the proposed natural gas pipeline running through Wet’suwet’en territory forced the company to temporarily suspend service.

“Our ridership at the beginning of the year, when everybody was on pause, was down 95 percent,” says Garneau. “We had to make a drastic reduction in our service level around Canada, and therefore some very difficult decisions in reducing our personnel levels. But what we’ve been doing since then is looking at gradually and safely increasing our service.” VIA’s announcement of partial resumption of long-distance service in Western Canada on the legendary “Canadian” route, between Winnipeg and Vancouver, starting in December, was a sign of the company’s intention to get back on track.

The rail renaissance

These days, VIA is positioned to benefit from a convergence of trends. According to Garneau, concerns about climate change, frustration with traffic congestion, and growing demand for sustainable mobility are reviving interest in passenger rail.

The company’s Fleet Replacement Program, set to begin rollout in mid-2022, will see brand new train sets, constructed by Siemens, replace the aging fleet along the Québec City–Windsor Corridor, which accounts for over 90 percent of the company’s business. Not only will the new train cars feature “great comfortable seats, accessibility features, and lots of storage, for instance for bikes,” says Garneau, “they will also be energy-efficient, allowing us to reduce our carbon-emissions footprint.”

VIA Rail chief commercial officer Martin Landry explains how rail fits in with the emerging zeitgeist. “It’s an interesting time for rail in general. It was perceived by so many people for so many years as kind of a technology of the past,” he says. “We have this romanticized view that trains are how people used to get around. And that’s a North American phenomenon, because around the world, rail is becoming even more relevant. And I think we’re making that turn in North America. Here in Montreal we have our REM [Réseau express métropolitain], Ontario is investing heavily, Ottawa has deployed their Light Rail Transit project. Rail is becoming the way to move around in the futureThe role we play is to connect the dots.” It’s all part of what he refers to as a changing “transport ecosystem.”

The company’s chief operating officer, Dominique Lemay, who came on board in September, has expertise in various forms of mass transit after stints at the STM and Exo, the Greater Montreal public transport system. He says that VIA’s other major strategic initiative, High Frequency Rail (HFR), a proposal currently awaiting the green light from the federal government, would be a game-changer for rail service in this country.

Currently, VIA owns just three percent of the rail lines it uses in the Corridor. It shares the vast majority with freight trains, which leaves the company with little control over travel times on most routes. HFR would give VIA dedicated tracks and connect more communities to urban centres, radically improving the travel experience for passengers. Interestingly, Lemay feels HFR’s chances of getting the go-ahead may have improved given the current economic hardships: All governments talk about stimulus packages, and some of the most useful forms of stimulus are infrastructure projects, because they employ local workforces.” He adds that “high-frequency train service would really bring us closer to what you find in some major European capitals in terms of service availability.”

The heart of the city

As VIA enters a new chapter nationwide, its fortunes in its hometown are also on the rise.“Montreal is such a great city,” says Garneau. “This is the first time I’ve worked downtown. Before, I was working in the periphery of Montreal, so I’m loving this change. What’s really neat about Gare Centrale is that from here you have the subway, you can take the bus, you can hop in a taxi or on a Bixi—this major transit hub makes it great for tourists.” Says Landry, “In my generation, we kind of forgot that the train existed. I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s licence, because that to me meant freedom. My sons never went through that phase.” Today, he’s more interested in making travel easier and more logical.

Lemay, for his part, feels that Montreal, with VIA Rail as a key player, is on the cusp of a new era of mobility: “VIA is a gateway to Montreal, from which you can access all the other modes of transport. The city is getting better and better connected.”