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Rising freight transport is pushing passenger transport to the sidelines

InnoTrans Report:

Mr. Péloquin, the car is the transport mode of choice when it comes to travelling in Canada. What role can, what role should the railway play in the overall mobility concept in Canada in the future?

Mario Péloquin: People are recognizing the vast potential of travelling by train. It's sustainable, it connects communities, and it benefits both our economy and our planet.

VIA Rail was created as a Crown corporation in the 1970s. Today, it is an innovative and efficient expert in passenger transportation. For more than 45 years, we have connected Canada from coast to coast to coast. Yes, 3 coasts because we even run in extreme weather conditions to Canada’s Northern Coast in Hudson Bay. We serve more than 400 communities, with about 5 million passenger trips this year. We are an economic driver in all those communities, with more than 34-hundred employees. Since VIA resumed almost full service after the pandemic disruptions, our customers have been coming back in force. By next year, as we enter the new year, we are on track to surpass the record ridership we experienced in 2019.

What infrastructure investments are being made for this?

Mario Péloquin: The EU has budgeted more than 87 billion euros for rail improvements and expansion. In the United States, the infrastructure bill allocates 66 billion US dollars for railways. And - there is a distinctively Canadian story being written.

In November of this year, VIA Rail launched its new reservation system allowing for a simplified, more convenient and more accessible experience for passengers. Designed with our customers in mind, this new reservation system is a crucial element of VIA Rail’s modernization. Designed to evolve over time, it lays the foundation for tomorrow’s improved customer experience.

Since 2022, we have also introduced state-of-the-art trains for our operations in Central Canada. Our new fleet is transforming passenger rail service in the Québec City-Windsor corridor, which connects Quebec and Ontario, encouraging many more people to choose rail - the best way to travel. We are particularly proud that they are the most accessible trains in the world.

The modern, efficient engines produce far fewer emissions. The seats are more comfortable, and the WiFi is greatly improved. VIA Rail believes that all Canadians deserve the same. Our ambition is to connect more communities and move more people in a more sustainable and more accessible way.

For VIA Rail, this must start with the renewal of Canada's long-distance and regional trains.

Trains operated by the national railway company travel to almost all provinces in Canada, but mostly not on your own tracks. What additional challenges does this pose for VIA Rail?

Mario Péloquin: With the increase in interest in passenger rail travel, we do face one main challenge as we work to modernize our services. VIA Rail owns only 3 percent of the track we use, and that means our trains often have to wait behind freight and commuter trains, which unfortunately makes them chronically late.

An example: on the Montreal-Ottawa line, where VIA Rail has complete control of the tracks, our trains are on time more than 90 percent of the time, while on the rest of the network, where we run trains on other host railroads, we struggle to achieve 60 percent punctuality. This is very frustrating for passengers and for VIA Rail.

The dramatic increase in freight transport is great for the country’s economy, but it is quite literally pushing passenger rail to the sidelines as the increase in traffic is easier to handle than the mix of trains of different speeds.

How can the increasing demands on modern rail travel, e.g. keyword Mobility 4.0, be implemented under these conditions?

Mario Péloquin: That is a concept in the transport sector that I believe is of vital importance. Integrated mobility means that travellers must be able to switch easily from one mode of transport to another. Whether by train, plane, car, bus or boat, connections must be seamless.

As part of our ongoing efforts to improve our services to Canadians, we'll be telling you more and more about integrated mobility during my tenure as CEO. Coordinating our efforts simply makes sense – because we all want the same thing – for more people to get out of their cars and chose collective transport. It’s our job to make it easy for them to do that.

What expectations do rail passengers have and how can you make rail travel more attractive?

Mario Péloquin: The world is recognizing that humanity is facing an existential climate crisis and we urgently need efficient, low-carbon transportation. We're all striving to make our world more connected, more accessible, and more equitable for all. In the face of these challenges, passenger rail offers a way forward.

In Canada, the Toronto-Vancouver line that runs through Edmonton, the Winnipeg-Churchill line and the eastern line from Montreal-Halifax all offer spectacular experiences that are truly unique in the world. VIA is also an essential link for indigenous peoples across the country and particularly in these regions. These trains date back to the 1950s in some cases; they require costly maintenance and lack the accessibility and comfort expected by modern travellers. Those cars and locomotives continue to operate thanks to VIA’s resourceful maintenance teams who keep them in service.

The long-distance and regional trains need to be retired and replaced. And soon.

It’s important to understand that it takes about a decade to procure this kind of equipment. If we don’t start this process right away, there is a real risk that there will be an impact on the level of service we offer across Canada. That would be a lost opportunity.

And it would be a terrible blow to some communities who rely on passenger rail service. In short, the need is urgent and the time to start replacing our long-distance and regional trains is now.

VIA Rail has a plan and we have delivered a vision to the government that outlines what we can do with new trains. We call it “Renewing the National Dream”, a build-up on the original dream to unite the entire nation in the late 1800s.

Fleet renewal across Canada offers much more than preservation of service. We believe it will be a catalyst for a new golden age of rail travel in this country, one that spurs economic growth throughout the nation. A new fleet will support equity by serving most regions of Canada and reaching up to 72 percent of the population, all while dramatically improving accessibility.

The train services operating across the country will be a renewed symbol of national pride. New trains for all of Canada will allow VIA Rail to build on its vision to link communities, to foster broad-based economic growth in the regions we serve and to promote reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.

In 2022, VIA Rail received an environmental award* for the station in Winnipeg; you are also aiming for LEED certification for your maintenance centres in Montreal and Toronto. In 2022, VIA Rail became Canada's first surface transportation company to join the United Nations Global Compact. Where do you see VIA Rail in 2030 or 2050?

Mario Péloquin: Canadians need a transportation network that seamlessly, efficiently and sustainably connects their communities, that is why VIA Rail has been transforming passenger rail service through its modernization programme and its sustainability and accessibility plans.

The Corporation has reviewed its policies, practices, and sustainability priorities to inform the development of its robust and future-oriented sustainability plan that will allow VIA Rail to reduce its environmental footprint, enhance its role as a responsible transportation provider and create lasting value for present and future generations.

The plan focuses amongst other things on climate action, responsible sourcing and waste management and will be yet another way for VIA Rail to be part of the solution in helping Canada create a more sustainable future for all.

This sustainability plan contributes to Canada’s various strategies and objectives and will embed environmental, social and governance performance in all VIA Rail’s operations so that it can be future ready and more resilient.

We are aiming to reach various objectives, including:

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent or more by 2030 (compared to 2005);

Offering zero-waste trains in the Québec City-Windsor corridor;

Training all employees on sustainability;

Aligning 80 percent of community investments with the priorities of this sustainability plan;

Reaching 80 percent integration of the responsible sourcing policy by suppliers.

This plan was also designed to contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals on which VIA Rail can have the greatest impact. Determined to continue moving forward on this path and reinforcing its commitment towards responsible business practices, VIA Rail, as you mention, recently became the first land transportation company in Canada to join the United Nations Global Compact. It will uphold the compact’s universal sustainability principles and contribute to broader societal goals.

Mario Péloquin

MARIO PÉLOQUIN, President and CEO VIA Rail Canada, Photo: VIA Rail Canada Inc.

The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver

The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, Photo: VIA Rail Canada Inc.