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Alexa Mazzarello/The Globe and Mail

It seems Cynthia Garneau has always thrived on unlikely challenges. On her way to becoming a special education teacher, she found herself drawn to law. As a newly minted member of the Quebec bar, she joined Bombardier, negotiating sourcing contracts and selling business jets. That led her to the Mirabel office of Texas-based Bell Helicopter and, after eight years, to the position of president at Bell Helicopter Textron Canada. When Bell planned to shift production from Mirabel to a new plant in Louisiana, Garneau used her jet-fuelled negotiating skills to pull the federal and provincial governments to her cause. Six weeks later, Bell announced it would move full production of its 505 helicopter to Mirabel. After such high-flying achievements in aerospace, what could be more unlikely than landing in the earthbound struggles of passenger rail in a country that puts cargo first? And what could be more challenging than transforming money-losing VIA Rail in the midst of a pandemic that has crushed ridership? Yet that’s the task Garneau is facing. At this point, the only thing more improbable might be her failure to succeed.

How often do you get asked if you’re related to Marc Garneau?

I had it a lot when I started. It will be less now that he’s moved on to a different portfolio.

Your background is in aerospace. What’s that industry like for an ambitious woman?

It’s filled with opportunities. It’s an industry that relies on lots of expertise, technically, administratively, financially, legally. I’m seeing more and more women accessing very senior roles in aerospace. And now I’m doing it in rail.

What’s your strength as a leader?

I’m very big on teamwork—creating teams and giving them the vision, objectives and targets, and empowering them. I’d say this comes from growing up in a small town, where everybody knows each other.

Where was that?

That was in Princeville, Que. My parents divorced when I was eight, so I lived in blended families for a good while. That’s why I’m very big on teams, because it’s kind of an extension of a family.

Before you took the job at VIA in 2019, how many big rail trips had you taken?

Not a whole lot, but I remember the first one. It was in my early teenage years. Some friends and I ended up participating in a bilingual exchange. We all took the bus to Drummondville, the closest city with a train station, and hopped on the train all the way to Toronto.

So you hadn’t done a lot of rail travel. What was it about the job at VIA that intrigued you?

It was the opportunity to transform what might be seen as a traditional transportation company into something that could be a vehicle for change.

What mandate were you given?

Of course health and safety is a top priority. And we had the specific project of the HFR—high-frequency rail. That was something the board of directors has been following since it was launched in 2016. And all of the other modernization initiatives, like the new fleet of trains that was announced before I joined.

So the direction of the corporation had been established, and your job was to keep it on track?

I wouldn’t say that. Yes, there were projects that had left the station, if you wish. But coming into the role, we did a strategic review, and there was a strong sense that these projects to address capacity challenges were very important to carry on.

Eight months after you began, the rail blockades happened. What were the initial challenges of that?

On Feb. 13, I was sitting with the chair of our board when CN, the owner of a major portion of our network, notified us that they were closing the network for passenger rail, and that we had to cease and repatriate passengers and employees as quickly as possible. And 24 hours later, almost all of our network came to a stop.

You had no control over dealing with the blockades themselves?

Nope. Not at all.

That was up to CN?

CN, but I would say mostly the government and the Indigenous communities who were demonstrating.

On the heels of that crisis came COVID-19. How did that affect VIA?

Same process: calling management, working with the board, launching the crisis cell to determine how to maintain some baseline operations. That meant stopping trains in the east and west, and keeping very minimal frequencies in the corridor. We also maintained very minimal frequencies in some of the regions where people depend on the rail.

Your ridership dropped 95% at one point. Where is it now?

Toward the summertime it was doing better, so we added frequencies. We went up again all the way to Labour Day. Then we started seeing the second wave, and again ridership started to go down. It’s a very fluid period. We make longer trains as much as we can when ridership is up. And when we need some more, we add frequencies for certain city pairs.

Through these two crises, what did you learn about VIA?

Well, it’s a great way to learn about a company, to learn about the talent of its people, the expertise. To see if their processes are resilient. I learned that you need to stay calm and communicate relentlessly.

Shifting now, it seems to me that rail travel in this country is just stuck, never changing. Why haven’t we seen more innovation?

We’re certainly looking at changing that. I mean, having a new fleet of trains doesn’t come very often. So that is going to move the needle quite a bit in terms of customer experience and increasing capacity. We’re highly dependent now on the infrastructure owners. For us to be able to increase frequency is not easy.

Is there anywhere else in the world where the passenger rail service owns only 3% of its infrastructure?

Well, if they don’t own it, there are clearer guidelines in terms of the capacity of the infrastructure they are getting and using. But definitely there’s lots of room for passenger rail to grow. And that’s what our high-frequency rail project is all about.

VIA has been talking about high-frequency rail for a while. Why is it going to happen now?

Because we have put in the effort in the past year. So in June 2019, the government sponsored the project officially by injecting $71-million into a joint project office with the Infrastructure Bank. Since then, we’ve been performing all the due diligence steps and reviews in submitting the business case to government. We did that just before Christmas. So right now the government has all it needs to make a decision on next steps.

What’s going to change for the VIA passenger?

Whether it’s on the existing network between Quebec City and Toronto, or on the new network we are proposing to connect more new communities, this increased network is going to allow more passengers to hop on the train. It’s going to mean more frequencies at better times. It’s going to mean shorter travel time, because if it’s dedicated passenger rail, you have a little more control. It’s going to mean increased on-time performance as well. And the new fleet is a more modern, comfortable and accessible mode of transportation. It’s also an opportunity to leave the car behind.

When will this new fleet arrive?

The new fleet is starting delivery in 2022. So we are very busy getting ready for it. Because these new trains, which come with new technologies, will force us to look at how we maintain, operate and service trains. New processes need to be developed around the new fleet, and it’s a great chance for us to modernize all of our processes.

And the nirvana of high-frequency rail—when does that arrive?

The next steps are environmental assessment, public consultation and construction. The construction could take at least three years.

Is there any guarantee it’s actually going to happen?

Like I said, the business case is in the hands of the government. Until he left his role, Minister Garneau was hopeful we would move forward. The hope is really that with the upcoming spring budget, we would see clear support for the project.

So we should look for that?

Yes. I know I certainly am.

Will any of the changes you envision improve the experience at the terminal?

Of course. I think we have about 121 stations total throughout Canada, so that’s a whole lot to maintain. There are lots of improvements we’re making from an accessibility standpoint. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Ottawa station. A lot of work has been going on there. We’ve done great work also at the Halifax station. The Winnipeg station is beautiful. We celebrated the 100th year of the Vancouver station in 2019. And many of them are—I don’t know how to say it in English—classé patrimonial. We’re also looking at revamping our reservation system so it’s much simpler and more user-friendly.

Is there a model you look to elsewhere in the world where they do rail travel right?

We look a lot at how they do it in Europe. We are a member of the Union internationale des chemins de fer, based in Paris. They’re big on intermodality, creating an ecosystem with other transportation agencies to make a more seamless experience for passengers. That’s definitely something I’d like to champion in Canada. But it requires the participation of many other stakeholders.

You said earlier you thought there was more capacity for VIA on the rail systems you don’t own. What are you doing to improve that?

We’re working very closely with our partners—CN, CP, Metrolinx—and looking for solutions that would benefit everyone and allow us to increase frequencies. They’re very aware of our needs.

What about climate change? Where does VIA fit in a reduced-carbon world?

The new fleet of trains comes with energy-efficient technologies that will make a great difference. Electrifying the infrastructure is also a great way of doing that, and the HFR project is contemplating electrification. Then there are all these other opportunities we can find in our maintenance centres, in our office spaces. These are part of an ESG plan we have in place to continuously try to improve our contribution to this. And the train itself is a way of reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

VIA’s ridership peak was five million in 2019. When do you see getting back to numbers like that?

It’s a tough one. We don’t have a crystal ball. We’re not seeing this happening for 2021, for sure. Maybe 2022 is when we’re going to be on the growth path again. And maybe we can dream of having that in 2023—five million passengers again, maybe more.

It’s a five-year term for you. Is there any chance of extending that, or do you see this as a five-year experience?

I see it as an ongoing project to demonstrate that VIA is a vehicle for change, that we are going to be transformed, having a sustainable positive impact for Canadians. As long as I’m busy and trusted to continue to do that, I’ll be with VIA.

Alexa Mazzarello/The Globe and Mail