Via Rail tells MPs passengers stuck on train for 18 hours were in ‘unique’ situation
Via Rail’s CEO says after a tree fell on a passenger train as it was traveling on CN Rail’s rails during the holidays, it took the freight company longer than hoped to clear it – and passengers on board sat for 18 hours Celebration.
Martin Landry, who is also interim president of Via Rail, offered the details of the saga when he appeared before the House of Commons Transport Committee on Thursday.
He and other Crown Corporation executives were the latest witnesses to be questioned by MPs investigating the widespread delays and cancellations that upended travelers’ plans in December.
Much of the committee’s focus was on the actions taken by Canada’s major airlines. But Via Rail was also called to explain the dozens of cancellations and delays its network experienced December 23-26 as a winter storm swept through Ontario and Quebec.
“We as a country need to look at increasing the resilience of our transportation infrastructure,” Landry said, adding that climate change is causing severe weather events to become more frequent.
Of particular concern to MPs, however, was the experience of passengers who boarded Via Rail’s Train 55 in Ottawa on Dec. 23, expecting to arrive in Toronto, but instead stopped for hours near Cobourg, Ontario.
At the time, some of the travelers told the media that they were not given information about when they could move and that they did not have adequate access to food.
Landry said one problem is that the train runs on tracks owned by CN Rail, which carries freight.
Nearly all of the tracks that Via Rail uses are owned by CN Rail, which Landry says makes them dependent on the private company whose responsibility it is to maintain the infrastructure and respond to incidents.
In the case of Train 55, Landry said that the first CN crews to arrive to clear the fallen tree were involved in an accident due to poor road conditions.
He said a second crew then determined the winds were too strong to remove the tree without causing more damage.
“I don’t think it’s about assigning blame because honestly it’s a combination of factors that caused this situation,” Landry said.
Some members of the committee expressed disappointment that, despite being invited, no one from CN Rail showed up.
A spokesman for the railway company told The Canadian Press that it is in talks with the committee, hoping to appear “soon”, and pointed to a letter it had filed detailing what is happening over the holidays is.
According to the document, the Dec. 23-24 winter storm caused power outages and road closures in eastern Ontario.
It also details how a freight train derailed on Christmas Eve on a route carrying Via Rail passengers between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, prompting more cancellations.
CN Rail says in its briefing that crews from Ontario and Quebec were sent to clear the railroad but “had to work in very difficult conditions,” including high winds and limited visibility, near the steep embankments that the railcars climb derailed. Some of the cars were transporting dangerous goods, the document said.
During Thursday’s hearing, Landry told MPs he believed it would be best if the passenger rail system had dedicated tracks.
Other Via Rail executives said they were working to improve communications with CN Rail. And Landry added it’s also clear they need to do a better job of informing their passengers about delays — something he publicly apologized for earlier this month.
Rita Toporowski, the railroad’s chief customer officer, told the committee Thursday that Via Rail is keeping food and water on board when there are delays.
But she said what happened on train 55 was a “unique” situation.
It took more than a few hours, and staff couldn’t get more supplies to passengers, which is generally another option when they run out, she said.
Via Rail’s appearance came as some opposition MPs said it was time to extend the country’s passenger protection legislation to rail travel, not just air travel.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra appeared before the committee earlier this month and vowed to tighten existing rules, which critics say lack the teeth to hold companies accountable for compensating air passengers.
However, in a statement to The Canadian Press, the Alghabra office did not comment on whether the minister supports calls for the existing passenger protection regime to be extended to rail passengers.
“The situation with Via Rail during the holiday season was unacceptable. Passengers deserve to be communicated with, especially during the unprecedented weather conditions Canadians were experiencing,” spokeswoman Nadine Ramadan said in an email.
“The safety of crew and passengers always has the highest priority. All options are on the table to further strengthen passenger safety.”
Via Rail’s appearance follows previous statements from executives at Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing.
Sunwing Airlines has come under particular scrutiny after hundreds of passengers were stranded in Mexico and said they could not get a response from the company regarding returning to Canada. They have all since returned to Canada and the airline has issued an apology.
Sunwing was criticized not long after for canceling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. It has also reduced winter flights from Moncton, NB, Fredericton and Halifax.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 26, 2023.