Toronto workers who live in the Cobourg, Ont. area are concerned and frustrated that Via Rail has not yet resumed its early morning commuter train into the city and they are calling on the national rail passenger service to reinstate it.
Residents who have returned to work in person say they used to rely on the 7 a.m train, known as Train 651, to get to work on time. It ran from Kingston to Toronto, with stops in Napanee, Belleville, Trenton, Cobourg, and Port Hope. Via Rail cancelled that train at the start of the pandemic after ridership dropped.
The next earliest train, Train 41, leaves Cobourg at 8:51 a.m. and arrives in Toronto shortly after 10 a.m., which is too late for many commuters who need to start work at 9 a.m.
"I just don't have the flexibility in a school day to start my day later. I also don't have the flexibility to work from home. This is very frustrating," said Michelle Lefolii, the principal of a private school in Toronto.
Lefolii says she relied on Train 651 to get to Toronto from Cobourg in time for work for more than 14 years. Now, she says she has to head to Toronto Sunday night and spend the work week in a rented condo there.
Other Cobourg residents are being forced to do the same thing, or they're resorting to driving to Oshawa to catch the GO train to Union Station, or they're driving all the way to Toronto themselves every morning.
Lefolii says the GO Transit station in Oshawa is a 40 minute drive away. As for driving to Toronto, it can take two to three hours each way because Highway 401 is so congested, she says.
"You can't spend four to six hours a day commuting, realistically," she said. "We feel as though we're caught in this sort of no-man's-land where we're not being served any longer by any service."
Her solution to the problem, which she calls a "stop-gap measure," has greatly increased her expenses, she says. The cost of the rented condo is eating into her retirement fund, she adds.
"I'm renting a 500-square-foot condo in Toronto at exorbitant prices. Half my paycheque is going to rent for this condo space that allows me to continue to do my job while I'm still keeping up expenses on my actual home."
Ken Noronha, who lives north of Cobourg in Baltimore, says he doesn't understand Via Rail's rationale for discontinuing the train. He estimates that nearly 400 commuters from such communities as Port Hope, Cobourg, Belleville and Kingston used the early morning commuter train. Now, he either drives into Toronto or takes the later train.
"Having the 7 o'clock train in the morning, as well as the later 10 o'clock train, gave us some flexibility and allowed us to be commuters, and more importantly, allowed us not to drive, especially in the winter time, because that's tough," he said.
Noronha says it makes business sense to reinstate Train 651.
"We actually have the infrastructure now. The tracks are here. There are people here who will use the service. VIA will not lose any money on it. This is not a good business decision," he said.
Still evaluating pandemic's impact, Via says
Via Rail says in a statement it is still evaluating the impact of the pandemic on operations and travel habits and it is planning to complete that evaluation of what it calls 12 "frequencies," including Train 651, in the coming weeks.
"Throughout the pandemic, our decision to add frequencies has been based on various factors, including demand and continuing to employ a balanced approach in order to fulfil VIA Rail's important public service mandate and manage financial impacts," the statement reads.
"Via Rail is constantly evaluating its services, and after two years of pandemic we are looking at the impact of the changes in travel habits on our operations, for example, the new work-from-home reality."
The Cobourg, Ont. area residents said they are also frustrated that VIA Rail is discontinuing its commuter passes at the end of June. Via said the cancellation is due to low sales and it will be launching different kinds of passes later this year.
"As we are in the process of launching a new reservation system, which will enable us to offer different types of passes, we are taking the opportunity to create an offer that is better adapted to our clients' needs," Via said.
The office of federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in an email that Canadians need to have access to safe and reliable passenger rail service.
"We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the global transportation sector, including passenger rail services. By the end of June 2022, VIA Rail plans to restore most of its passenger rail services across the country," the office said.
"We will continue working with Via Rail, industry partners, and stakeholders to strategize options and ensure communities are connected across the country."