VIA Rail Canada is facing a marked ageing of its rolling stock fleet

VIA Rail Canada is seeking billions of dollars from the government in Ottawa to replace rolling stock that has outlived its useful life. Otherwise, the quality of service from Halifax to Vancouver will deteriorate rapidly, rail passenger company officials warn.

VIA Rail CanadaOn the occasion of a rare foray by media representatives to VIA Rail’s maintenance centre in Montreal, the transit company’s officials made public their demands to the federal government, whose budget for fiscal year 2024-2025 is expected to be approved in the coming period.

While showing journalists the process of maintaining train cars dating back to the last century during an hour-long visit, VIA Rail representatives explained that they needed to quickly secure billions of dollars from Ottawa authorities to launch a tender to replace rolling stock running between both Halifax and Quebec City and Toronto and Vancouver.

This does not take into account the regional routes to and from the more remote sectors that the state-owned company provides in various provinces, which are currently served by trains made up of wagons whose average age is 74 years. More specifically, the locomotives and wagons running on many rail lines are between 69 and 79 years old, according to information provided to the press by VIA Rail officials. By comparison, the average age of trains operated by Amtrak in the United States is 34.4 years, and those operated by France’s national rail operator (SNCF – Société nationale des chemins de fer français) is only 16 years.

Quality of rail service in danger of deteriorating

“When it comes to long-distance wagons, all the ones you see today have done the equivalent of 195 circumnavigations of the Earth,” said VIA Rail’s Director of Communications, Jean-Vincent Lacroix. He said that despite the real miracles that are performed every day in the maintenance centres to keep the rolling stock in working order, they have long exceeded their normal lifespan of 25 years.  Locomotives and wagons must therefore be gradually replaced and those which have aged too much must be withdrawn from service.

VIA Rail is trying to keep the rolling stock in service as long as possible, mainly thanks to maintenance work carried out at the Montreal facility, located in the Pointe-Saint-Charles district. However, from 2019 to date, only 25 out of 200 wagons have been successfully withdrawn from service.

Thus, if these cars and locomotives are not replaced as quickly as possible, the quality of passenger rail service provided over a distance of about 10,000 km in Canada could deteriorate exponentially in the coming years, Lacroix said. He declined to detail the financial demands that have been made in recent months on federal government officials, so as not to influence the tender that the carrier hopes to be able to launch later this year.

The Director of Communications said that even if this tender is launched, once approval is received from Transport Canada, passengers will have to be patient for another ten years until all the required wagons are delivered to the operator. However, VIA Rail management estimates that it will only be able to maintain the existing cars until 2035, and their validity cannot be extended beyond that date. As a result, time is pressing for the Otttawa green wave, he stressed.

“If we are not able to launch this procurement process, the impact on our services will be felt for years to come,” warned Lacroix, who added that from 2035, if no cars are replaced, it will no longer be possible to provide long-distance rail connections in Canada.

In fact, the effects of VIA Rail’s ageing active train fleet are already being felt. The number of cars providing rail service across the country on long routes – with the exception of the connection between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario, which received USD 1.5 billion in federal funding in 2018 (equivalent to just over EUR 1 billion) to renew its rolling stock fleet – has dropped from over 200 units in 2019 to just 175 that are still operating today. As a result, this has resulted in shorter trains already serving more destinations, which has obviously led to fewer passengers being able to travel. On the other hand, train frequencies have already been reduced on some routes, as André Bouchard, Vice President in charge of Mechanical Services at VIA Rail, explained.

“This is forcing us to cut some services in the west country and some frequencies because of the reduction in available carriages,” Bouchard said. Thus, rail services connecting to Senneterre, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, or Churchill, in Manitoba, will be the first to be affected by VIA Rail’s anticipated shortage of rail cars.

“These are some services that may not be available to Canadians because we won’t have enough cars,” Bouchard warned.

Pessimism in statements, optimism on the operator’s website

The decision to establish VIA Rail was made on January 12, 1977, when Canadian National discontinued passenger rail services. After several months of negotiations, on October 29, 1978, VIA Rail assumed all passenger train operations and took possession of the cars and locomotives.

On the operator’s website, the information presented is much more optimistic than that given to the press and mentioned by us above. Here we are presented with the Rolling Stock Renewal Programme, which is described as the cornerstone for improving connectivity across Canada. However, it refers only to the introduction of a new generation of trains on the Quebec-Windsor corridor, which we have already mentioned has received federal funding of 1.5 billion Canadian dollars.

Indeed, the trains already running in this corridor have state-of-the-art facilities to enhance the comfort of rail passengers, such as ergonomic leather seats, 120 V and USB power sockets, generously sized tables, larger luggage spaces, mini conference rooms in business class, increased accessibility for passengers with mobility disabilities. The new trains are also equipped with conventional electronic displays and Braille displays for the visually impaired.

Also from the VIA Rail website, we learn that Forbes magazine has named Canada’s state-owned rail operator as one of the country’s top employers in 2024. VIA Rail ranks number one in this regard in the air and passenger rail industry.

Rail routes threatened by rolling stock unavailability of Via Rail Canada

The rail routes that could be most affected by the unavailability of VIA Rail rolling stock are the following:

– Le Canadien Line (Toronto-Vancouver)

– L’Ocean Line (Montreal-Halifax)

– Montreal-Jonquière Line

– Montreal-Senneterre Line

– Sudbury-White River Line

– Jasper-Prince Rupert Line

– Winnipeg-Churchill Line.

“Rail transport is very popular for tourism and more. Some passengers get on just for a few stops, others use regional trains. Some communities across the country are only accessible by these trains,” said Jean-Vincent Lacroix, director of public relations at VIA Rail.

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