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Sharing the Railway

July 25th 2014 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

Last week, VIA Rail was happy to announce the return of passenger service on the line between Churchill and Gillam in Northern Manitoba. Following a freight train derailment, passenger service was interrupted until the track was deemed safe for passenger trains to continue operations. Citizens of the area expressed their dismay at the situation – a sentiment all of us at VIA Rail shared.

This blog is about these types of incidents that challenge both the goodwill of our customers and our employees’ resilience.  At VIA Rail, we take pride in serving the public, especially remote areas such as Churchill where there are few transportation options. It is always as a last resort that we announce the suspension of our train services. Though we understand and empathize with the frustration of the communities whose service gets disrupted, as a responsible public service we cannot and will not sacrifice safety.  In the case of the Churchill derailment, we had to ensure that the track met rigorous passenger train safety standards before proceeding with the re-introduction of service. These standards differ from those set out for freight trains, which is why freight train service often resumes earlier than VIA Rail’s passenger train service. While we may be eager to resume operations, it cannot be done at the expense of passenger safety.

The past month has also seen a derailment in the Québec City – Windsor corridor where 80% of our customers travel. Services between Toronto – Ottawa and Toronto – Montréal were suspended for two days. 3,600 passengers were impacted. VIA Rail staff rose to the challenge and did the best in the worst of situations. We were appreciative of our customers’ patience.

These events raise an important question. Currently, VIA Rail operates mostly on tracks owned by other infrastructure providers. The concern therefore becomes: how can VIA Rail optimize partnerships with track owners in order to better serve the public? One of the ways we address this is to improve scheduling and avoid overlap with heavy freight train traffic. On the Sudbury – White River line in Ontario, for example, we recently changed scheduling to leave two hours earlier on certain routes, in order to avoid periods of high freight track congestion. Solutions such as these – taking into account customer needs and working with track owners – are amongst the most effective ways to share the railway. An increase of freight carrier traffic will make cooperation even more important if we are to better serve Canadians.

Through our ongoing communications with our railway partners, we continue to look for innovative ways to improve our service and we are always appreciative of our clients’ understanding when disruptions do occur. Stay connected to hear about upcoming changes and improvements by reading this blog and through my Twitter account @VIARailPrez.

Personally, I am very proud of the dedication and professionalism of our staff onboard trains, at stations and in our call centers and our support personnel at head offices.

Highlights from the Listening Tour

July 11th 2014 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

On May 20th, we launched an employee listening tour with the goal to meet and listen to ideas from as many VIA Rail employees as possible. As of this week, we’ve reached a nice milestone with almost 1,350 employees reached, out of a total 2,500. The 50% mark has been surpassed; what an accomplishment for everyone at VIA Rail!

This tour has also provided an opportunity to chat with passengers on the train while travelling across the country to meet with employees. To date I have had onboard conversations with over 60 passengers on the Corridor and Ocean service trains.

The ideas that have been put forth by both employees and passengers have been impressive and well-thought out. And at the root of the suggestions is Canadians’ love for their national passenger train service.

Here are some tour details:

Dates: Meetings and travel took place from May 20 through July 11 (so far).

Where: Cities visited include Halifax, Moncton, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

When: Meetings were held at all times of the day, including on weekends; as early as 6AM and as late as 11:15PM, in accordance with employees’ schedules.

At each location, a VIA Rail employee was actively jotting down every comment and idea put forth, for reference following the tour. As a new President, the time taken by each employee to meet, give feedback and engage in conversations was both appreciated and helpful.

Topics included everything from our baggage policy and staffing levels on trains and in stations to providing better communication with passengers about train status. At the center of those discussions was a keen sense of what would improve our services and a focus on the customer.

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the listening tour. We have already begun working on and implementing some of the ideas brought forth during these meetings and we will continue to do so after the tour is done.

Happy 110th Birthday to our Ocean train

July 4th 2014 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

 

The Ocean train

The Ocean train

On July 3rd, VIA Rail’s Ocean train service celebrated its 110th anniversary. The historic train is not only a part of VIA Rail’s history, is it a part of Canadian heritage. The Ocean route helped to build Canada by transporting new citizens from Halifax west across the country (Pier 21 is located just behind the current station in Halifax), to new and developing communities.

Earlier this year, the service made headlines following the possible abandonment (by railway owners) of a portion of the railway that the Ocean travels on. However, in early May, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt announced that a $10.2 million investment in the infrastructure will allow the Ocean to continue its service in Eastern Canada Everyone here at VIA Rail was nothing less than thrilled by this announcement.

In fact, to mark its anniversary, I boarded the celebrated Ocean train, along with representatives from the communities it serves, both to celebrate the anniversary of the train and to begin a collaborative partnership with these communities. The goal of the trip and the meetings that followed was to brainstorm ideas to increase ridership and improve the service in line with the clients’ needs.

The trip also afforded me an opportunity to stop and appreciate the scenery. My schedule is pretty tight, and relaxation is not at the top of my list of priorities. Having a working day on the train was just what the doctor ordered. In the stress-free atmosphere of the Ocean you can’t help but enjoy the view, not to mention having the time to engage in meaningful conversations with great people and be pampered with gourmet food. The best part is that in the midst of all of this, lots of important work was done to conserve and promote this train route.

So, happy 110th, Ocean train! It is an honour to share this birthday with you… here’s to the next 110 years of great service.

To Be Young Again: Discover Canada With No Limits!

June 27th 2014 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

Growing up as a first generation Canadian with immigrant parents, there was nothing better than discovering all that Canada had to offer. My parents loved the country, and encouraged me to visit as much of it as I could.  One of my first travelling adventures was as a high school student, taking the train to London, Ontario, where I participated in an exchange program. As a parent, I also encouraged my two daughters to visit and learn about their homeland. They both ended up going to Queen’s University in Kingston, and travelled home by train whenever they could (which was never often enough!).

There’s something magical about train travel, especially in one’s youth. The formative years full of discovery, adventure, reflections, chance meetings… it’s all a part of becoming well-informed about who we are, who we can be and how we’ll participate in Canadian life as productive, well-rounded, well-grounded adults. It’s also part of becoming Canadian.

For many young people, the quintessential dream of “backpacking across Europe” has become the ideal summer vacation. And it’s usually done using a rail pass. So, why not do the same thing here at home? In my opinion, having done both as a young man, I believe Canada’s artistic, culinary, musical and linguistic ranges, in addition to its varied geography and industrial diversity allows it to compete quite favorably with the cultural mosaic youth can expect from travelling overseas. But, it’s in looneys!

It’s with this dream of summers past that one of the first things we did after my appointment as President and CEO was to create an unlimited youth summer pass. The Summer Pass means students can hop-on and hop-off, with no limitations to the number of trips over the summer months, and discover the country at their own pace. They can travel through the Corridor or across our whole network. They choose the Pass that meets their adventurous ambitions. Hopefully, many will take us up on our offer to discover Canada.

In the fall, still with youth in mind, we plan to focus on the many students studying in the communities across our network, so they can return home more often, as my daughters did, for a great meal, help with the laundry and a big hug!

Stay tuned for more youth and student oriented promotions this fall. In the meantime, let the backpacking across Canada begin!

You Asked, We Answered

June 18th 2014 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

Recently, VIA Rail received the following message through social media (note that the question was shortened, where indicated. Caps are original):

“ PLEASE NEW VIA RAIL PRESIDENT: […]How about FINALLY providing frustrated Via Rail passengers with SPECIFIC STEPS that are currently being taken to improve DECLINING ON-TIME TRAIN PERFORMANCE!?? […] HOW ABOUT […] MORE DELIVERY OF ACTUAL “SOLUTIONS” TO VIA RAIL PROBLEMS WHICH PASSENGERS HAVE RAISED FOR YEARS NOW!”

In addition to responding directly to the concerned party, I wanted to publish my answer regarding on-time performance, an ongoing challenge faced by VIA Rail. Below is my response, which I hope helps the concerned party, along with all passengers, understand this issue a little more clearly.

Thank you for sharing your concern about the on-time performance (“OTP”) of our trains. We understand and in many ways, we share your frustration. ‎This time of year is often the worst in terms of OTP for all railways as it is the season during which much maintenance work is undertaken to keep the infrastructure in a state of good repair. This might include replacing rails, rail ties and ballasts and adjusting or upgrading crossings and other railway signal systems. These necessary projects often impose slower speeds at the work location which in turn have a domino effect on the rest of the network, particularly in single track territories‎. 

However, in addition to the work season, it is to be expected that as railway traffic grows, rail congestion will also increase. Recent traffic growth can be attributed to increased demand for both freight and passenger rail transportation. ‎Over the past few years, many regional passenger transportation systems have increased their rail component. 

That being said, here is what have we being doing to improve the situation at VIA Rail:

‎First, we focus on one element we do control: on-time departures (“OTD”). In the railway business, leaving on time increases the probability that a train gets to destination on time, subject to unforeseen circumstances such as accidents or mechanical failures. That is because contrary to car or air travel, trains operate in a pre-set sequence, under established operating rules. Thus trains can rarely make up for lost time by taking alternative routes or by increasing their speed. Our focus on OTD has resulted in the vast majority of our Quebec-Windsor (“Corridor”) trains leaving on-time.  

Second, working with our freight and passenger railway partners‎, we look for ways to improve the sequencing and performance of trains. This means that we work to adjust the schedules so that time-to-destination improves, passengers get to their destination sooner, and the trains can service more customers. Our railway partners share VIA Rail’s objective of running on time. In a networked environment such as a railroad, delays by trains of one railway may impact several trains of other railways operating on the same tracks. 

As you know, Canada is a vast country with its relatively small population distributed ‎unevenly across its many cities and towns. As a result, expensive infrastructure such as railroads must be deployed cost-effectively. VIA Rail owns and controls 177 miles of track between Coteau (QC) and Smiths Falls (ON) and between Windsor (ON) and Chatham (ON). On the Coteau – Smiths Falls segment, where VIA Rail controls traffic and where there is only one freight train per day, the on-time performance of VIA Rail trains is well over 95%. By comparison, on the rest of the Corridor where VIA Rail trains share the railroad with other passenger or freight railways, and where traffic is controlled by the host railway, it is challenging to maintain a consistent on-time performance of over 80%. 

In light of the above, we must expect that running trains on time will remain a challenge. However, as opportunities arise for VIA Rail to acquire tracks in regions where it can be justified by potential increase in traffic‎, these opportunities will be considered.

In the meantime, we must continue to deploy all efforts to get more people to use VIA Rail trains and to recognize the true value of the service. That is where you come in by continuing to allow us to meet your transportation needs and to encourage others to do the same. We thank you for your business and remain committed to be of service.