Despite cuts to its government subsidies, and a reduced number of trains on some of its less-traveled routes, VIA Rail Canada is beefing up its crucial Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto service. Chief executive Marc Laliberté, who took over the reins at the Crown corporation in 2010, is spearheading the effort to improve links with other forms of transport, upgrade track and equipment and revamp on-board services. Mr. Laliberté acknowledges the key to VIA’s success will be better on-time performance and faster trips.
What have you been doing to improve VIA’s performance?
The first step was to spend $1-billion from the Government of Canada. We decided to invest the money in the cars, locomotives, stations, [a new first-class] lounge in Toronto and on information technology – such as e-ticketing. The next step was to adjust services, everywhere from Vancouver to Halifax, to be more efficient in the way we operate. We are trying to attract customers by increasing frequency, cutting trip times and creating seamless connections with other carriers. And once you are on board our train, we want to make your time productive, so we have powerful WiFi.
What can you do to improve trip times on the key Montreal-Toronto route?
The fastest train that we have runs at an average speed of about 115 kilometres an hour , but the maximum speed we can run is 160 km/h. If we want to reduce the time by say, 45 minutes, to bring the time below 4 hours, we will need to run at an average speed of 135 km/h. To do that we need to use technology, and to invest in infrastructure. Between Brockville and Toronto we are building a third main track at some locations to clear the bottlenecks.
Can you compete with airlines on that route?
Consider the time it takes to get to the airport by cab – if you are in rush hour you are going to lose an hour or more. Then you have to line up and go through security. And you can’t work. We tell customers to come to the station five or ten minutes prior to departure, get on board and connect with our WiFi system and start doing what you want to do. If we can do the trip in less than four hours, I think we will attract a lot of people.
How have you made connections with other modes of transport work better?
Here’s one example: In Moncton, our train was leaving 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the bus from Saint John. What a loss. People couldn’t connect. We said, ‘no, that is not the way to do it.’
We now have [Ontario’s commuter rail system] GO Transit on our website, so you can buy tickets from Ottawa to Niagara, or Ottawa to Kitchener, through a combination of VIA and GO tickets. It is cheaper for customers, and it provides more options.
You are even linking up with airlines, right?
We found out that thousands of our customers were going [by train] from Ottawa or Kingston to Dorval [station, near Montreal’s Trudeau airport] to take flights to London or Paris from Air Transat. The customers were doing that by themselves, but it was complicated. So we said to Air Transat, we should combine our efforts. It is not totally organized yet, but it is getting there. The next step will be to see if it is possible to check baggage in Ottawa for London.
We also started to have our trains coming from Sarnia, London and Kitchener, stop at Malton Station [west of Toronto]. We didn’t stop there before, but we realized we were near the airport. We just had to put on a shuttle to bring the customer to the airport.
What does this mean for customers?
Now people can leave their cars at home, because they can take a bus or a commuter train, and get to the main station to take the train. At the destination they can even have a car waiting, because we have an agreement with [Montreal and Ottawa car-sharing companies] Communauto and VrtuCar. You can reserve the car and book your train in one transaction.
When is rail the most efficient form of transport?
Between 0 and 160 km, the car and the bus may be the best modes. Between 160 and 800 km, I would say the train is the best. Then above 800 km, flying is the best option. We need to connect as much as we can, so it is easier to move from one mode to another.
Are you cutting some services because Ottawa is cutting back your subsidies?
No. Like any business, we have to operate as efficiently as we can. We need to improve the bottom line. A train needs a certain ridership. You cannot just run big trains with 20 or 25 people on board. It is not economical and it is not ecological. I cannot just stop everywhere in Canada to pick up all passengers. And the rolling stock that I am freeing up is not just going in the garage. I am using it at other locations, like between Ottawa and Toronto, because there is a market there and big demand.
What is the future of the long distance tourist trains?
People who take the Canadian [from Toronto to Vancouver], are mainly on vacation. They are deciding between taking the train, or a cruise line, or going to Club Med, or on a golf week somewhere. So we are in competition with others, and we are selling the experience on board. This year, the Canadian is going very well, despite the fact that there is a recession in Europe and the economy is not great in the United States. On the Ocean [from Montreal to Halifax], we still have some work to do. That is why we decided to reduce the service, even during the peak season.
You have said you’d like to attract private sector investment to beef up rail infrastructure. How would that work?
There is a lot of money in Canada that wants to invest in infrastructure. [Investors could] finance, design, build and maintain [parts of the system]. We could operate it. If I had a choice, I would start with the triangle between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. This is where you have 50 per cent of our passengers, and 50 per cent of the Canadian population.
Will we see high speed rail in Canada eventually?
For speeds higher than 160 km/hour, we aren’t going to be able to do it on [tracks] we share with freight. But I am looking at it. My main target is between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, because this is where the market is.
Wouldn’t that require huge government support?
Why? If you bring a service that attracts a lot of customers and you can make it profitable, then private money could be made. Most of the high speed rail service today in Europe is done through private-public partnerships. That is something we need to look at. But we are not there yet – we need to look at what we can do with the existing infrastructure first.
Ten years from now will Canada still have a rail passenger network?
I hope so. Do you know any G20 country that has no train service? I don’t think there are any. I am quite confident that we are still going to have one – and a better one.
What countries do you admire for the way they manage their passenger trains?
The most innovation that I have seen is in Japan. They started high speed rail. I’d say France is next. It took some courage at that time for their politicians to start that vision [of high speed rail]. On the freight side, I’d say that CN is the best run company. I was part of the transformation – we converted the company to the best railroad in North America.
President and Chief Executive Officer, Via Rail Canada Inc.
Born in Quebec City,
58 years old
Bachelor of Science in
engineering physics from
- Joined Canadian National Railway Co. in 1980 as a mechanical engineer, became director of inter-modal operations, then CEO of subsidiary AMF Technotransport
- In 1996 became general manager of CN’s Champlain district in eastern Canada
- In 1999 named CEO of rail-car door maker Vapor Rail Inc
- From 2003 to 2009 was CEO of short line rail company Quebec Railway Corp
- Appointed CEO of Via Rail in January, 2010