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VIA Rail indefinitely postpones restart of Ocean, Canadian

By | September 28, 2020

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MONTREAL – VIA Rail Canada has postponed resumption of its triweekly Halifax-Montreal Ocean and twice-weekly Toronto-Vancouver, British Columbia, Canadian indefinitely, according to a news release issued last Friday and Trains News Wire reservation center inquiries. This is contrary to the passenger carrier’s addition of trains to its Quebec City-Windsor, Ontario, corridor.

Sleeping car service will also remain suspended between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba, though the route serving many otherwise-inaccessible communities is the only one on VIA’s system that operates with pre-pandemic frequencies.

VIA discontinued its two long-distance trains in March, and previously announced plans to relaunch them on Nov. 1. It later decided to block future sleeping car sales on the Ocean and Canadian in November and December while conducting what VIA spokesman Karl-Philip Marchand Giguere told Trains News Wire on Sept. 11 was, “a detailed analysis of many aspects of the journey.”

Marchand Giguere says the study includes, “ventilation systems, classes of service, schedules, and food and beverage, in order to offer a safe travel experience,” adding, “Due to the close proximity between employees and passengers and the duration of the trip, VIA Rail deemed it would be difficult to offer a safe environment on board its long distance trains,”

Yet while VIA and Amtrak both require passengers and employees to wear masks, Amtrak continues to promote the social distancing advantage of private rooms on its website, radio traffic report sponsorships, and social media posts. It has become Amtrak’s strongest revenue-per-passenger segment, with many travelers opting to buy a meals-included room for short-distance daytime travel on its long-distance trains.

However, travel restrictions have been consistently more stringent in Canada than in the U.S., with many areas limiting passage only to residents of the same or an adjacent province. The release announcing the most recent service postponement advises, “recent bulletins by authorities show that a second wave of the pandemic has begun in some regions of the country.”

Although the Canadian serves remote areas and people along the Ocean’s route also have few public transportation options, the fact that these trains don’t run every day and have gradually evolved into tourist season-only revenue producers, makes it difficult for VIA management to advance an “essential service” justification on their behalf for additional operating funds.

With many employees furloughed and, “given the level of preparation that is needed to resume these services,” as a news release states, it is clear that economic considerations are playing a significant role in the decision to keep the trains sidelined.

Over the weekend, VIA’s website still allowed travelers to reserve coach travel on the Ocean and Canadian in November and December, but would not accept payment at the conclusion of the booking process. All coach and sleeping car inventory is shown for both trains beginning in January and through the summer, but no mention of a tentative date they will begin running again has been announced.

A reservation agent tells Trains News Wire that they only learned about the suspension midday on Friday. “Customers are asking,” she confides, “but we don’t have answers.”

VIA’s eastbound Ocean heads towards Halifax, near Rogersville, New Brunswick, in February 2014. [Bob Johnston]
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