On Saturday, I will be participating in and speaking at a national conference about the teaching and communication of the history of Canada, on behalf of VIA Rail. Hosted by the Association for Canadian Studies, the 2-day session is called “(Re) Making Confederation: (Re) Imagining Canada”, a topic near and dear to my heart.
Since I began at VIA Rail over 5 years ago, and especially since assuming the role as President and CEO, I have believed that VIA Rail is much more than the sum of its parts. Yes, we offer train travel and superior service as Canada’s national passenger railway but we also offer much more. We are distinctly Canadian; not only by virtue of our history, but also because of how we run our business. For example, we offer Canadian products onboard our trains. Our menu is based on locally-sourced ingredients, and the food products come from Canadian companies. Our On Train Entertainment system is comprised of all-Canadian programming, provided by Canadian Crown corporations the CBC and the National Film Board, but also by Historica Canada and the Canadian Heritable Information Network, who create fantastic vignettes that tell historically accurate and important stories about Canadian history.
While riding our trains, passengers are given the opportunity to learn more about the land on which they are travelling. In the future, this offering will be further developed so that every passenger will be able to leave more informed and knowledgeable about Canada then when they embarked. For years we have already been providing scheduled talks about Canadian history, culture and tourism on both our Canadian and Ocean trains. Canadian musicians also perform on board these long distance trains. And over the past year, we’ve welcomed the Salon actors from the Sir John A Macdonald Bicentennial Commission to perform, educate and delight passengers about Sir John A Macdonald himself, one of the fathers of Confederation and one of history’s biggest train enthusiasts, without whom the Canadian railway system would not be what it is today.
The conference itself will be marking 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, and will be looking at the relevance of history in our daily lives. At VIA Rail, does history play a part in our daily lives? Absolutely! Sharing that history and knowledge through the medium of the train is a gift VIA Rail gives its passengers every day, and one we will continue to evolve, for the benefit of our passengers and for Canada.
This year, the days leading up to Remembrance Day are taking on a different meaning for all Canadians. In the past, they gave a current and local meaning to a day associated with past events that took place abroad. Last month, however, we witnessed tragic events here, in both St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa that remind us of the courage and commitment of those who serve our country in defence of our rights and freedoms.
All of us at VIA Rail honour the service and memories of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo. While our first thoughts go out to their families and friends, now more than ever, our commitment to Canadian soldiers, veterans and their families remains unwavering.
VIA Rail has always had a close relationship with the Canadian Military. We have worked with the military on a host of different and innovative projects over the years and are always happy to introduce new initiatives that support their families and facilitate their return to civilian life.
Last month, VIA Rail sponsored the event celebrating the Royal Montreal Regiment‘s centennial. On May 9, we sponsored and attended Soldier On Afghanistan events in Ottawa, recognizing those who fought in Afghanistan, remembering those who fell, and saluting all who contributed to the ten-year mission. VIA Rail also sponsored and participated in Vimy Ridge Day, the Canadian Armed Forces photography contest and events organized by the True Patriot Love Foundation.
This past September, we were delighted to welcome onboard the 100,000th Canadian military passenger taking part in our special military program. The discount program, launched in 2010, is offered to Canadian soldiers, veterans and their families.
Finally, this year, VIA Rail Canada is proud to join the Royal Canadian Legion in commemorating Remembrance Day. On behalf of all our passengers and employees, VIA Rail made a donation to the Legion’s Poppy Campaign. Thus, we will be distributing poppies onboard our trains until November 11th, with our compliments, as a tribute to the service of the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces, past and present, here and abroad. It is a small gesture by VIA Rail to thank those who risk so much in their invaluable service to Canadians.
As a Canadian Crown corporation, VIA Rail proudly serves the public in both official languages. But being truly bilingual also means working in both languages internally, and providing a space in which employees feel free to communicate in the language of their choice. It is a responsibility that we take seriously, within our corporation and without. Every passenger, employee, partner or supplier we communicate with, we offer to do so in either English or French.
Every year, Canadian Crown corporations submit their Annual Review of Official Languages to the Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and to Heritage Canada. This year, we received some favourable feedback from the Government for our work. Though we are not usually ones to “toot our own horn”, I am making a special exception this year, to express my sincere gratitude to all employees who make the effort to support VIA Rail’s bilingual environment every day, on and off the train.
The Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser has these nice words to say about VIA Rail:
“[Translation] VIA Rail, a transportation company whose headquarters […] are in Montréal, manages, year after year, to achieve exemplary performance. In its newsletter, VIA Rail [...] is known for the tradition and culture of their organization (with respect to the importance of linguistic duality): we see a leadership that produces results.”
“Several federal institutions were still struggling with designing measures to promote both official languages across the country [...]. Institutions need to be proactive and direct their promotional efforts toward the general public to raise awareness about the importance of linguistic duality in Canadian society as a whole. Some institutions did implement measures of a broader scope, such as [...] VIA Rail Canada’s On Board Entertainment initiative.”
Only two institutions’ activities received the grade of “exemplary”, and VIA Rail was one of them.
Federal Crown corporations are expected to promote both official languages. The fact that we do it well is because we believe in its importance, and in the benefits of living in a country where diversity is respected, promoted and celebrated. Congratulations to all VIA Rail employees, for this well-earned recognition.
Last week, I delivered my first public address as President and CEO of VIA Rail at the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montréal. It was very exciting to have the opportunity to address this business crowd on behalf of everyone at VIA Rail. I discussed the many reasons to take the train. I also discussed the future of passenger rail in Canada.
As Canada’s national passenger rail service, our mandate is to provide safe, cost-effective and environmentally responsible train service from coast to coast, in both official languages. Though we own, operate and service equipment (including locomotives, train cars and stations) we are, first and foremost, a service company. Without our clients we would not exist, and it is for our clients that we strive to become the best inter-city travel option in Canada.
Though there are many environmental, economic and social advantages to taking the train, in order to be successful we must consider and deliver what our clients want, and as their needs evolve, so must VIA Rail. Based on the feedback from over 300 passengers I met while taking the train since my appointment in May, client surveys and input from the employee listening tour, our customers’ needs can be summed up in the following three points:
- Reliability: safe and punctual trains
- Frequency: the number of departures offered
- Travel time: best time to destination that our equipment can provide
Regarding reliability, our trains remain one of the safest modes of transportation in North America. As for on time performance (punctuality), frequencies and travel time, we have been working to maintain and improve our offerings in these areas. In order to do so, we must consider the conditions under which we operate. The following is a very brief history of passenger rail to explain our circumstances: In 1885, construction of the national railway was completed. Since that time, freight and passenger rail have shared the same tracks. In 1977, VIA Rail was founded to serve passengers, while the other train companies (CN, CP and others) focused on freight. To this day we continue to share the same rails. Meanwhile, regional passenger train services have been established and have grown significantly and the freight train business has also grown in popularity. That’s a good thing for the Canadian economy. But, all that growth on a shared rail network is leading to significant congestion which over time will negatively impact the future of passenger rail in Canada.
There are, and will continue to be in the near future, too many trains sharing the same railway infrastructures. To accommodate the growth in train traffic (freight and passenger), the two types of trains need to operate on their own dedicated tracks.
Operating on dedicated tracks, VIA Rail’s trains could run at full potential, which is 160km / hr. Under current circumstances, our average speed is rarely greater than 100km/hr. At top speed and with dedicated tracks our on time performance would soar, while our travel time would decrease significantly. We could travel between Montreal – Toronto in about 3 and a half hours and between Montreal – Ottawa in about an hour.
Dedicated tracks would certainly require significant investment. Currently, our funding comes 47% from travellers (through ticket sales) and 53% subsidies of the Government of Canada. However, to meet our needs we have to think bigger and include more diverse funding partners such as, possibly: provinces and municipalities and most importantly capital markets.
We have a vision for the future of passenger rail and for the future of travel in Canada itself. Train travel is one of the “greenest” modes of transport, especially compared to taking a car. Our carbon footprint is impressively low, and only accounts for 0.02% of all greenhouse gas emissions per year in all of Canada in the transport industry. We have a responsibility as a Crown corporation to serve our greater community, our country.
VIA Rail’s success can mean many things:
Reducing the growth of the subsidy from the Government of Canada (and thereby respecting taxpayers’ ability to pay)
Improving the mobility of Canadians and the economic growth that mobility brings
Taking care of our environment by replacing cars with trains and further reducing overall GHG emissions
As we work toward these goals, we welcome input from the public. We want to cooperate with you, to get you on our trains and keep you coming back. 71% of our passengers are repeat customers. Please connect with us through Facebook or Twitter at either @Via_Rail or with me personally at @VIARailPrez.