Monday, March 27, 2017

Ten ways to revitalize Via Rail Canada (Part II)

Via Rail Canada's decision to commemorate Canada's 150th birthday with specially wrapped cars and locomotives has created a great deal of excitement. Using this as inspiration, I have come up with some ways to revitalize Via Rail. You can read the first installment of this post here. Here are ideas six through ten.

6. Stable funding

This is the elephant in the room for Via Rail and sadly, there isn't much the railway can do about it. No matter what it does right or what it does well, there are a number of elements that affect its operations that are beyond Via's controls. The biggest problem the railway faces is the political whims of government. Over the years, Via has had its supporters in Ottawa, like former Transport Minister David Collenette, and its critics like former Conservative Transport Minister Chuck Strahl. Mr. Strahl was perhaps the biggest threat Via has faced in recent years. Given he was from Western Canada, his skepticism for Via subsidies is hardly surprising, as the railway is no doubt viewed very differently between Eastern and Western Canada. To be fair, the Conservatives did commit substantial dollars to some capital projects that have helped Via, but the issue the railway always faces is the stability of its subsidy. This lack of certainty often leads to the company having to make tough decisions. This has greatly hurt the railway's presence outside of the Quebec City-Windsor corridor over the decades. As I have often said, we need to decide what we want out of Via Rail Canada. Those who suggest a passenger railway can earn money are dreaming. But those who suggest that this is a good reason to cast Via adrift are really missing the point of this railway. A country as vast as Canada needs transportation connections of all kinds, given the distance between our communities. There will always be a role for passenger rail, but we need to decide once and for all what that role will be.

7. Market the time advantages of rail travel in the corridor

Corridor consist makes its way west toward Ottawa Station along the Alexandria Sub in 2013

One aspect of Via Rail's marketing has never made sense to me. Don't get me wrong. I have always thought Via's overall marketing efforts have been solid and stylish. They do an excellent job of marketing the train as a stress-free way to travel. Over the years, they have used slogans like "People Moving People" and "A more civilized way to travel." But Via has never done a very good job explaining to travelers how train travel times compare so favourably to air travel times in the corridor.

What I mean is how much time and money does a traveler spend flying between cities? And consider for a moment how much goes into flying. How much do you pay to ride a cab or Uber out to your airport? How much do you have to pay to park at the airport? How much do you have to pay to park at a lot near the airport and ride a shuttle bus to the terminal? How many security checks do you have to undergo to fly? How long does it take to get through security? How early do you have to be at the airport before you can board your airplane? How long do you have to wait to board. How long does it take to get off the plane, get your baggage and get to where you need to be?

The whole point is, when you put together the entire travel day, a train trip is much more comparable to a plane trip than you might think at first blush. Rail travel will never compete with the airlines when it comes to actual travel time. But  I never understood why Via hasn't really pointed out how many hassles you avoid by taking the train.

8. Explore more international links

Amtrak train from Toronto waits at Sarnia Station before heading west to Chicago, early 1990s

Given the state of the Canada/US border, I very much doubt there is any appetite to re-examine some international connections, like the old Toronto-Chicago train that Via once operated with Amtrak. Of course, Via and Amtrak still operate trains between Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and points south. But I wonder what it might do if Via offered more connections to large American cities like New York, for example. I know the Vancouver-Seattle service operated by Amtrak has found a comfortable niche, but I'm curious if there would be further demand for this type of service if it was put back on the table. From a marketing point of view, being able to offer New York, Boston or Chicago as destinations in your timetable would certainly attract more attention. However, I don't think this is a viable option to pursue right now. It's a shame too, because Amtrak trackage between Ann Arbour, Michigan and Chicago now has stretches where trains can operate at 110 mph. That helps cut down travel down considerably.

9. Reroute the Canadian

Via operates through Rogers Pass in 1982

This is one option that may have been closer than we think, particularly when there was talk of routing Via's Canadian along the Canadian Pacific Superior Line in northern Ontario, rather than the more northerly CN line. But imagine Via being able to once again serve Banff and Calgary. I am not an expert on rails through the Rockies, but just about everyone seems to agree that Canadian Pacific's tracks are more scenic than the CN route. I can't imagine the Rocky Mountaineer would be thrilled with this move, since it would likely be seen as direct competition for its own tour train in this region.

10. Explore regional stations in large cities

Via already has regional railway station in its larger urban areas, such as the Guildwood Station in Scarborough and the Georgetown Station west of Toronto. Then there's the Fallowfield Station in west Ottawa and the Dorval station west of Montreal. I know from experience that the Fallowfield Station has been a hit in Ottawa since it opened more than 15 years ago. It doesn't seem to add anything to the Via schedules. I wonder if more can't be done to serve larger urban areas with quick station stops in suburban stations. Fallowfield station stops, for example, are usually no more than five minutes. It would certainly add a level of convenience for travelers who don't want to go to the downtown stations.

These are just a few examples of ideas that might help Via Rail, in my opinion. As I said, I think the company does a great job considering its circumstances. I hope it will find its champion in government again and build some momentum. Until it does, it's fun to dream, isn't it?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ten ways to revitalize Via Rail Canada (Part I)

With all the excitement about Via Rail Canada’s Canada 150 wraps, I thought I’d take this opportunity to open a discussion about what we would all like to see from our national passenger railway. I have always enjoyed my time on Via Rail trains. I have travelled between Ottawa, Toronto, London, Kitchener, Sarnia, Montreal and Quebec City on Via trains, dating back to the days when the trains were all blue and yellow or silver and blue and pulled by the old F units. I do not profess to be an expert on Via and I don’t want this post to come across as a criticism of the railway. If anything, it should read more like a criticism of the federal government, which has made numerous errors over the years in its treatment of this underappreciated Crown corporation.

With that in mind, here are the first five of my 10 suggestions that I’d like to see for Via Rail Canada.

1. Bring back the blue and yellow scheme

Print of a shot of Via 6523 in Heron Bay, 1982. Photo courtesy of Eric Gagnon at Trackside Treasure.

This might seem like a trivial suggestion, but I really think consistency in a railway’s look benefits the railway immensely. Look at the consistency of CN’s look over the years and compare that to the multiple changes made to Canadian Pacific’s look over the last twenty years. What are your first impressions of these companies? I would venture to guess most people would tend to think of CN as a more competent railway. Of course, our perceptions are coloured by more than just how a railway looks, but there’s something to first impressions. Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Right now, Via Rail has its renaissance green and yellow scheme, which isn’t all that bad, but when you consider the separate scheme for the railway’s streamliners, not to mention the look of the troubled renaissance coaches, you don’t see a unified look. I think back to how the blue and yellow coaches fit with the streamliners and even the original LRC coach scheme. Even when the F40PH-2s replaced the F units and assumed a new look, all the parts of the railway fit together much better than they do today.

2. Lose the Government of Canada wordmark and oversized Canada flags

Via 647 crosses McKenna Casey crossing near Barrhaven in Summer 2015

Part of my job is marketing, so I can say, as a humble communications and marketing guy, anything that is associated with the federal government, as Via Rail is, faces an uphill battle. After all, the federal government is not known as being terrible forward thinking, efficient or modern, as a general rule. As a public servant, I can confirm this. So by placing these logos on its coaches, the railway is already putting out a message to its customers that they may want to lower their expectations. I don’t pretend to know whose idea it was to apply the wordmark in the first place. I suspect it was a decision that was out of the company’s hands. But it would really help for Via to distance itself from its political masters, just like Canada Post has done. That is, if the company has a say.

The oversized Canada flags are mostly gone from the coaches, and I think this is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong. I am a proud Canadian and love the Canadian flag, but I find these flags are visually distracting. Does anyone remember when the old GO Train locomotives had a tiny Ontario flag on their hoods? I think that type of subtlety would work much better on coaches, if the idea ever comes up again.

In both cases, I find the wordmark and oversize flags to be visually distracting. In many cases, simplicity is the best approach.

3. Give the provinces and regions more say in intercity routes

Via Corridor train (a double ender with two P42s) approaches Cedarview Road recently. Note that five of the eight destinations listed on these wraps are in Ontario and Quebec.

I was inspired to write this post when I noticed some of the western destinations listed on the Via wraps on its coaches. One coach, which has Edmonton listed, made me think of the railway's sparse presence in Western Canada. Does it seem odd to anyone that Via Rail has no presence in Calgary or Banff? To me, that is criminal. I'm not a business expert, but I would have to think that there are smart economic development professionals in Western Canada that would be able to work with Via Rail to identify corridors where passenger rail could make sense, at least to a degree where it could reasonably approach cost recovery. That is why I have wondered why Via Rail's funding model doesn't seem to include a more prominent role for the provinces and regional governments. I would think it would be reasonable to give the provinces and regions a say in new routes in exchange for partial subsidies of those routes, if the will exists to support these services.

In the United States, much of Amtrak's timetable is influenced by regional priorities that drive regional routes. These services would not exist if regional and state governments hadn't identified the need to have trains connecting cities. I would never suggest Via Rail adopt a funding model like Amtrak's, which seems far more susceptible to political whims.

But surely there has to be more opportunities to have better rail service to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina or other Western Canadian cities. I realize it's a complex task, since there needs to be a clearly defined priority, will funding partners and a compliant host railway that can accommodate passenger trains. This is not always easy, but I think we could make it easier if we allow regions have a greater say in planning a truly national passenger timetable.

4. Explore higher speed rail on selected routes

Via Rail corridor train approaches Belfast Road en route to Via's central train station in April 2014

At some point, I think our country is going to have to ask itself what it wants from Via Rail Canada. Are we going to treat Via as a national resource, which will require federal support or are we going to leave it in no man's land, where it often has to fend for itself? I'm not saying that Via is entirely left to its own devices now, but I think its federal support is leaning more in that direction.

Unlike when it was founded, Via now has its own rights-of-way, or tracks that it largely controls. The Smiths Falls Subdivision is one example. It is largely a Via-controlled corridor, although it does host the odd CN local freight (CN 589). Is this line a good candidate for investments that would allow trains to go faster? What about Via's Brockville Sub?

The idea of high-speed rail is a no-brainer in many countries in Europe in Asia, where railways are viewed as a national resource. China, Japan, France and Spain are all examples of high-speed rail success. In a country where we are separated by vast distances, high speed rail would require enormous investments, but would likely yield enormous benefits. As I mentioned, we need to decide what kind of passenger railway we want for our country.

Amtrak has already established a few higher-speed rail corridors, where its trains can reach 110 mph. I find it unfortunate that the US, which has repeatedly rejected high-speed rail, is further along than we are. That needs to change.

5. Rescue the remaining RDCs and use them

An old RDC has sat in Ottawa's Walkley Yard for years

It's a shame that more of these old Budd-built RDCs weren't saved because they could be the key to establishing passenger rail on routes that might not require a full consist. These old workhorses have proven themselves to be remarkably reliable. Via still uses them in Northern Ontario and recently used them on Vancouver Island until poor track conditions forced the cancellation of their service. I would think that the railway could make use of these as a way to gauge interest in renewed rail service in parts of Canada it no longer serves.

Via Rail Canada faces a thankless task everyday. Maybe it's time we give the railway the tools it needs to do its job.

More to come.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Some quick thoughts about Via Rail

Since starting this blog, I have noticed that most readers don't tend to get all that excited about Via Rail. Local railfans here in Ottawa  seem to resent that Via Rail is pretty much the only game in town if you want to watch trains in the city.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see so much excitement (both good and bad) regarding Via Rail's commemoration of Canada's 150th birthday. As I have noticed in recent weeks, there are a lot of people that don't care much for the scheme, and I can understand why, even if I don't necessarily agree. Yes, it's a bold, somewhat atypical scheme for a railway to have. It's bright and loud and not at all in keeping with railway tradition.

My first Via 150 wrap on Train 55, westbound out of Fallowfield Station earlier this month

But given that Via Rail is by no means a typical railway, I wonder why we sometimes expect it to be. I am as guilty as anyone. I don't like the look of double-enders where two locomotives are at either end of a train. I don't like the Via Rail renaissance scheme. I think the green and school bus yellow colours are a big step down from the silver blue and yellow of the previous Via Rail scheme. I don't mind the rebuilt stainless steel Budds painted with dark grey stripes, but I'd rather see the old streamliners in the blue and yellow. I really dislike the look of P42s. I could go on, but these are pretty surface complaints.

Via Rail is a railway that is perpetually at the whim of its political masters, which is a shame. I really would love to see the railway with a stronger presence in Western Canada and am surprised that there doesn't appear to be any prospects for intercity rail out west. I would love to see underserved cities regain their rail service, like many towns in Eastern Quebec and my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario.

I think maybe we might be missing the point with the Canada 150 scheme. This company, for better or for worse, is doing a pretty good job, given the thankless task it has to fulfil each day. These wraps are bold and are something different. I applaud Via Rail for recognizing Canada's birthday and celebrating the service it provides. I love the fact that it is listing the cities it serves on the side of its trains.

I guess my point is I would rather worry about Via Rail the company than gripe about its paint scheme. Although, if anyone from the company reads this, bring back the original blue and yellow scheme!

Monday, March 6, 2017

That's a wrap! (Well, almost)

This winter has been much busier than previous winters, as anyone with a young family can understand. The end result has been that I have not had very many opportunities to get out there and capture some winter railway photography. Aside from a brief morning at Ottawa's central train station and a quick sprint out to Smiths Falls, I have not been trackside much since I caught up with the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train in late November.

So as I had some time last week, I headed out to Fallowfield Station to try and catch some Via Rail Canada 150 clad cars or locomotives.

As I set up trackside, it was hard to determine where the main track and siding were, since the blowing snow tended to obscure the track. I fired off a few test shots of the Fallowfield sign and tried to capture the blowing snow.

A few minutes later, Train 55 made its way west toward the station, with F40 6441 leading the way. As I saw it headed my way, my first thought was there would be no P42 wrap for me to shoot. It might be the first time I have ever been disappointed to miss a P42.

But as the train made its way, I realized that I hadn't captured any good winter railway shoots this winter. So my disappointment over not catching a newly repainted P42 was replaced by some excitement over these shots. I like that you can barely make out the tracks in this shot. Winter railroading at its finest!

As Train 55 got closer, the dramatic combination of strong winds, snow and a steadily moving train combined for some interesting and dynamic shots. This shot was one a few I caught before I was swept up by a snow shower.

Now compare these shots with one I took last June. This is the beauty of photography in Canada. The four seasons can allow you to take a photo from the same spot many times and you will rarely get the same shot.

This next shot might be my favourite. The shot gives you the illusion that this train is flying, when in fact it was creeping into the station. The snow and the wind suggest otherwise.

I like that you can't even see the Business Class car. Sadly, none of the LRC cars were Canada 150 cars, which was disappointing. In fact, none of the cars were even repainted at all. They were all in their original LRC paint scheme. This train was a real throwback.

One final going away shot from the other side of the station. The lighting wasn't great but I was going for something different, so I wasn't looking for perfection anyway.

This gives you an idea of what it's like to get caught in the wake of a train on a winter day. So even though I didn't get what I set out to capture, I did take care of some seasonal business.