Via Rail trip between Halifax, Montreal to take longer due to poor rail conditions

The eastbound Ocean train trip from Montreal to Halifax will now take an extra 45 minutes, while 90 minutes has been added to the westbound trip from Halifax to Montreal.  (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)
The eastbound Ocean train trip from Montreal to Halifax will now take an extra 45 minutes, while 90 minutes has been added to the westbound trip from Halifax to Montreal. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)

Train travellers between Halifax and Montreal will now spend more time on the rails, partly due to a lack of upkeep on the tracks in northern New Brunswick.

Officials with Via Rail say the eastbound Ocean train trip from Montreal to Halifax will take an extra 45 minutes, while the westbound trip from Halifax to Montreal will be 90 minutes longer.

"In response to recurring slow orders imposed by CN, along with a deterioration of operational speeds on that infrastructure due to track conditions, notably on the Newcastle subdivision, Via Rail has no choice but to adjust the schedule of the Ocean, starting June 19, to provide passengers with a schedule that better represents actual travel times," an official said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

The Newcastle subdivision is a 278-kilometre stretch of track owned by CN Rail that runs from central to northern New Brunswick. Via Rail said it gave more than $18 million to CN in 2014 for repairs of a 71-kilometre section of the subdivision between Bathurst and Miramichi.

Via Rail's Ocean line makes several stops between Halifax and Montreal.
Via Rail's Ocean line makes several stops between Halifax and Montreal.

Via Rail's Ocean line makes several stops between Halifax and Montreal. (Via Rail)

"These funds were spent exceptionally to maintain status quo for passenger rail service levels on the Ocean, as CN was considering the abandonment of that portion of the subdivision," the statement said. "Unfortunately, the current conditions of that same infrastructure have now led to some operational changes."

The poor rail conditions are forcing trains to slow down to about 50 kilometres per hour, according to Transport Action Atlantic, an organization that advocates for the development of and advancement of public transportation in the region. The group also said that 30 years ago, the route had permissible speeds of up to 120 km/h over much of the track.

"It certainly was well travelled because it was a much more frequent service to begin with, but it was also much more reliable and it was a whole lot faster than it is now," said Ted Bartlett, former president of Transport Action Atlantic.

"We're not talking high-speed rail here. We're talking 19 hours and 15 minutes from Halifax to Montreal. But that's a heck of a lot better than it is now."

He said because of the disrepair, trains are forced to "crawl" over some stretches at speeds "no faster than a walk."

According to the Via Rail website, the trip takes an average of more than 23 hours from city to city, with three departures a week. The westbound train from Halifax is scheduled to leave at 11:30 a.m. AT and arrive in Montreal close to 11 a.m. AT the next day. A change in departure time and the lengthened duration makes the trip less appealing to business travellers, Bartlett said. He said 30 years ago, the train left Halifax around 2 p.m. AT and arrived in Montreal the next day around 8:15 a.m. ET, giving travellers more flexibility.

Ted Bartlett, president of Transport Action Atlantic, said government should continue to offer funding to municipal transit services affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ted Bartlett, president of Transport Action Atlantic, said government should continue to offer funding to municipal transit services affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ted Bartlett is the former president of Transport Action Atlantic. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

"Really, this is a failure of transportation policy in Canada by successive governments," he said. "We won't blame the current government, its predecessors were just as bad," he said. "They totally ignored passenger rail."

The line itself is not owned by Via Rail, but by CN, a former Crown corporation that was privatized in 1995. In Bartlett's estimation, the lack of investment into passenger rail is about "shareholder value."

"And there's no shareholder value in investing in a track that's as lightly used as the Newcastle subdivision. So CN isn't going to do anything about it."

When asked about the condition of the tracks in the subdivision, CN spokesperson Ashley Michnowski said in an email that the corporation's ongoing maintenance of the area "will allow for some improvement to speed restrictions in the coming weeks and months."

Michnowski said CN invested roughly $22 million last year in maintenance to more than 950 kilometres of track in New Brunswick, including the Newcastle subdivision, and it carries out regular maintenance on its network "to the extent it is commercially reasonable."

Expert says passenger rail needs support from government

Gordon Lovegrove said that more investment in train travel in Canada could be a boon financially and environmentally.

"There's a really good business case for passenger rail in Canada, given we need to take some urgent drastic action to reduce the amount of emissions into the climate, into the atmosphere," he said.

Lovegrove, an associate professor in the School of Engineering at the University of British Columbia, said while passenger rail isn't a "panacea" for travel issues, it does offer some affordable and safe solutions.

Like Bartlett, Lovegrove said because most railway companies in the country are privately owned, they tend to be motivated by the bottom line.

"Transportation is a social determinant of health, and private, profit-motivated companies are looking at direct costs and benefits to themselves and nobody else, not the general public," Lovegrove said.

"I think the government has to step in and say, 'Listen, are we doing this? Are we getting on board the national and international and provincial climate action bandwagon or are we not doing this?'"

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