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Via Rail tells MPs passengers stuck on train for 18 hours were in ‘unique’ situation

Ottawa investigating widespread delays and cancellations that plagued Canadians over the holidays
Martin R. Landry, Interim President and CEO of Via Rail, prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The CEO of Via Rail says that after a tree fell on a passenger train as it travelled on CN Rail tracks during the holidays, it took the freight company longer than hoped to clear it — and passengers on board were stuck for 18 hours.

Martin Landry, who is also Via Rail’s interim president, offered the details of the saga while appearing before the House of Commons transportation committee on Thursday.

He and other executives from the Crown corporation were the latest witnesses to be questioned by members of Parliament who are investigating the widespread delays and cancellations that upended travellers’ plans in December.

Much of the committee’s focus has been on the actions taken by Canada’s major airlines. But Via Rail was also called to explain the dozens of cancellations and delays its network experienced from Dec. 23 to 26, as a winter storm swept across Ontario and Quebec.

“We, as a country, have to look at increasing the resiliency of our transportation infrastructure,” Landry said, adding that climate change means severe weather events are becoming more common.

What was of particular concern to MPs, however, was the experience of those passengers who boarded Via Rail’s Train 55 in Ottawa on Dec. 23, expecting to arrive in Toronto but instead stopping for hours near Coburg, Ont.

At the time, some of the travellers told media they that were not receiving updates about when they might move, and that they were without proper food access.

Landry said one issue was that train was travelling on tracks owned by CN Rail, which hauls freight.

Nearly all of the tracks Via Rail uses are owned by CN Rail, which Landry says makes them dependent on the private company, whose responsibility it is to maintain and respond to incidents on its infrastructure.

In the case of Train 55, Landry said the first CN crews that arrived to clear the fallen tree ended up getting into an accident amid poor road conditions.

He said a second crew then determined that the winds were too strong to remove the tree without causing more damage.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of pointing the blame, because frankly, it’s a combination of factors that created this situation,” Landry said.

Some MPs on the committee expressed disappointment that no one from CN Rail appeared, despite being invited.

A spokesman for the rail company told The Canadian Press that it is in discussions with the committee in hopes of appearing “soon,” and pointed to a brief it submitted that outlines what happened over the holidays.

The document says that from Dec. 23 to 24, the winter storm caused power outages and road closures across Eastern Ontario.

It also addresses how a freight train derailed on Christmas Eve along a stretch of tracks that carries Via Rail passengers between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, resulting in more cancellations.

CN Rail says in its brief that crews were sent from Ontario and Quebec to clear the railway, but “had to work in very difficult conditions,” including high winds and limited visibility, near the steep embankments where the train cars derailed. Some of the cars were carrying dangerous goods, the document says.

During Thursday’s hearing, Landry told MPs he believes it would be best if the passenger rail system had its own tracks.

Other executives at Via Rail said they are working to improve communication with CN Rail. And Landry added it’s also clear they need to better update their passengers when it comes to delays — something he apologized publicly for earlier this month.

Rita Toporowski, the railway’s chief customer officer, told Thursday’s committee that Via Rail does keep food and water on board for when delays happen.

But she said what took place on Train 55 was a “unique” situation.

It lasted for more than a few hours, and staff were unable to bring further supplies to passengers, which is generally another option if they run out, she said.

Via Rail’s appearance came as some Opposition members of Parliament say it’s time to extend the country’s passenger protection regulations to cover rail transportation, not just air.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra appeared at the committee earlier this month and vowed to toughen up existing rules, which critics argue lack the teeth to hold companies accountable for compensating air passengers.

But in a statement provided to The Canadian Press, Alghabra’s office did not address whether the minister supports calls to expand the existing passenger protection regime to cover those travelling by rail.

“The situation with Via Rail over the holiday season was unacceptable. Passengers deserve to be communicated with, especially during the unprecedented weather conditions Canadians were experiencing,” spokeswoman Nadine Ramadan said in an email.

“The safety of crew and passengers is always a top priority. All options are on the table to strengthen passenger safety even more.”

Via Rail’s appearance followed earlier testimony by leaders at Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing.

Sunwing Airlines came under particular scrutiny after hundreds of passengers were left stranded in Mexico, saying they could not get an answer from the company about returning to Canada. They have all since returned to Canada, and the airline has apologized.

Sunwing faced criticism not long after for cancelling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. It has also reduced winter flights out of Moncton, N.B., Fredericton and Halifax.

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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