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VIA Rail train arrives at Union Station in Toronto.

Poor infrastructure blamed for late trains
Published: October 20, 2007
Source: Canadian Press
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OTTAWA -- If your Via Rail train rolled into the station late this summer, you weren't alone.

Internal reports from the Crown corporation show that crumbling infrastructure has conspired against train schedules across Canada this year, delivering passengers late in almost one of every four trips.

The situation deteriorated over the late spring and summer, partly because Via's geriatric F-40 locomotives keep breaking down.

"Via equipment failure caused delay minutes (to) increase by approximately 60 per cent from 2006 to 2007,'' says the September report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Nationally, about 23 per cent of Canada's passenger trains ran late in the May-to-July tourist period, well over Via Rail's target of 10 per cent.

The late-train problem has gotten worse in every part of the country, including the heavily travelled corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, with four of every five Via Rail customers.

For the eastern service between Montreal and Halifax, trains were late more than 60 per cent of the time in July, largely because of "major locomotive failures.''

And for the western service between Toronto and Vancouver, on-time performance was abysmal as well.

"The average West delay severity remains extremely poor,'' says the report, prepared for a recent meeting of the board of directors.

"Western Services trains arrived in Vancouver and Toronto in May, June and July 2007 an average of two hours and 42 minutes late, which represents a sizable increase over the average delay a year ago.''

But the worst service in the country appears to be along the stretch between Winnipeg and the Hudson Bay port of Churchill, Man.

In July, 10 of the 26 Via trains scheduled along the route never arrived at all. Those that did make it to their destination were four hours late on average.

Via Rail, which receives an annual federal subsidy of $170 million for its 4.1 million passengers, is not always responsible for train delays. The agency largely operates on track owned by other railways, such as CN Rail, and its passenger trains must sometimes stand down to let freight trains pass.

Freight-train derailments, track-improvement work and speed restrictions along tracks that are prone to buckling in summer heat have all caused disruptions in the schedule.

The report notes in particular that Via Rail has a "worsening relationship'' with the Hudson Bay Railway or HBR, a subsidiary of Denver-based Omnitrax, which owns the track between The Pas and Churchill. Closures because of defects in the tracks, and derailments of HBR freight trains, help account for many of the late and non-arrivals.

About 4,700 passengers were also hit by delays last summer caused by native protesters blocking rail lines in Ontario.

But Via Rail's own F-40 locomotives -- 20-year-old workhorses of the system -- are responsible for many of the delays. The corporation's 54 F-40s, representing more than 70 per cent of the fleet, are at the end of their useful life.

"Regular overhauls and scheduled maintenance no longer ensure reliability nor keep maintenance costs under control,'' says an internal analysis.

A spokesman acknowledged the F-40s have been a continuing headache.

"Despite concerted efforts to control those factors for which Via has direct responsibility, the reliability of Via's locomotive fleet ... has increasingly been a significant cause of delays,'' said Malcolm Andrews from company headquarters in Montreal.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced $516 million in capital funding over the next five years, much of which will go to rebuild the F-40s from the ground up, giving them 15 to 20 more years' of service. Tracks and other infrastructure will also be improved.

Quebec and Manitoba have also announced plans to improve rail infrastructure in their provinces, which will help improve on-time performance, Andrews said.

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