July 22nd, 2024

Via Rail CEO calls for right of way over freight trains, passenger bill of rights

By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press on October 23, 2023.

The Via Rail station is seen in Halifax on June 13, 2013. The head of Via Rail, Mario Péloquin says the federal government should consider a passenger bill of rights comparable to the one now in place for air travellers.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

MONTREAL – The federal government should move toward giving Via Rail trains formal right of way on the tracks over freight trains, says Via Rail chief executive Mario Péloquin.

In an interview, the Crown corporation CEO said the measure would reduce trip disruptions prompted by Canada’s two main freight railways – whose tracks Via runs on – and vastly improve performance on periodically tardy passenger trains.

It would also align Canada with regulations in the United States, where Amtrak passenger cars enjoy priority.

Ideally, the measure would go hand-in-hand with a passenger bill of rights comparable to the one now in place for air travellers to ensure customers receive compensation for long delays, Péloquin said.

“Now, we have no class, no prioritization. There was talk about putting rules in place prioritizing passenger rail trains. I would love that, together with a bill of rights for passengers similar to what we see in the airline industry, as imperfect maybe as it is,” said Péloquin, who stepped into the top job at Via in June.

“All we can commit right now without those rules is that we’ll get people where they want to go – eventually.”

If the reason for a Via trip disruption stemmed from either Canadian National Railway Co. or Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd., they would be the ones to pay up, further incentivizing smooth operations along the line, he added.

The air passenger rights charter, rolled out in 2019, spells out penalties for airlines that breach the rules including compensation for lost luggage and trip delays or cancellations – up to $2,300 and $1,000, respectively.

The regulations are currently undergoing an overhaul following criticism over loopholes for airlines to avoid compensation and soaring customer complaints to the regulator.

In the quarter ended June 30, Via saw just 62 per cent of its trains arrive on time, which nonetheless marked an improvement from 53 per cent a year earlier, however.

Former transport minister Omar Alghabra told media over the summer he was looking into measures to improve travellers’ experience amid Via’s shaky performance, including through a bill of rights.

Not all rail industry players are on board.

John Corey, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada, said giving Via right of way over CN and CPKC would pressure an already strained supply chain, as would a rights charter.

“Prioritizing passenger rail service over freight rail service would be the tail wagging the dog. Freight railways, their customers and Canadians in general would be subsidizing the few people using the passenger rail system,” Corey said.

“Currently, freight rail service in Canada is not optimal from a shipper’s point of view … Any initiative that would make freight rail service less efficient would not be supported by the (Freight Management Association).”

Corey added that he can sympathize with travellers – “I have taken Via and sat on a siding waiting for the freight train to pass.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CNR, TSX:CP)

Share this story:


Comments are closed.