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Almost half of Via Rail Canada's passenger trains arrived late over the winter - and many were very tardy, says a new report.

The slumping performance, in a year when the Crown corporation promised to get more trains to the station on time, is being attributed to severe weather that crippled Via's aging locomotives and damaged tracks, switches and signals.

For the first three months of this year, 46 per cent of trains arrived late, says an internal report obtained under the federal Access to Information Act.

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The company had been shooting for just 14 per cent in the first quarter.

The late-arrival figure would have been even worse had Via not given itself a grace period that allows it to deem as on time any short-haul train that is up to 15 minutes late. Long-haul trains get a 30-minute grace period.

The March numbers were particularly bad, with 54 per cent of trains across the country delivering passengers later than scheduled.

One of the worst-performing routes is also one of the most popular: Toronto-Ottawa, in which almost three-quarters of the trains arrived late in March.

Not only were more trains late, but they were very late, according to the report prepared for the corporation's board of directors' meeting in April.

Via uses an internal yardstick that calculates how many minutes each train is late and adds them to produce a total "delay minutes."

By that measure, March this year was twice as bad as last year, with almost 33,000 "delay minutes."

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That translated to about 4.5 hours average delay for Toronto-Vancouver trains; almost three hours average for Montreal-Halifax trains; and about half an hour average for all eight shorter-haul services in central Canada.

The company provides so-called late train credits to travellers whose trains are significantly overdue, which can be used only to purchase future Via tickets.

If a short-haul train in central Canada is more than one hour late, for example, the credit is for 50 per cent off the next ticket.

The poor performance comes at a bad time for Via, which needed $200-million last year from the federal government - about $50 for each ticket sold - to cover a shortfall in revenue.

The strong dollar has sent Canadian tourists abroad and is keeping foreign tourists - especially Americans - at home, cutting into rail revenue.

And some fierce airline competition in central Canada has kept seat prices in check, despite fuel surcharges, eroding Via's potential customer base in the more lucrative corridor services of Ontario and Quebec.

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Most passenger trains travel on Canadian National Railway tracks, which are crowded with freight trains that often cause delays. Severe winter weather also froze many CN switches and caused signal malfunctions.

But Via's aging F-40 locomotives have themselves suffered numerous breakdowns, especially in cold weather.

Ottawa has promised $232-million over five years to rebuild 53 engines, but the first will not be ready until March of 2009.

"Via recognizes that on-time performance is a critical issue for customers, and for the success of passenger rail," says the corporation's recent annual report.

"Delayed service undermines customer satisfaction and loyalty, particularly in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, where travellers are especially time-sensitive. ... Improvements in on-time performance will be a priority for 2008."

Via recently gave itself some wiggle room: A new June 1 schedule for the Quebec City to Windsor, Ont., corridor has built in significant extra time to account for summer construction and other problems.

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As well, Vancouver-Toronto trains are being given extra time to arrive in a new schedule taking effect Dec. 2.

Via spokesman Malcolm Andrews said the company is also "in the process of evaluating suppliers for work on Via-owned tracks ... and is in discussions with the operating railways regarding improvements to their infrastructure."

But "any significant track improvement work will inevitably mean speed reductions and, temporarily, longer trip times until the work is completed."

A transportation analyst said Via is doing the right thing by refurbishing its locomotives, but problems with late arrivals will remain as long as the corporation must share tracks with CN.

"CN is looking at its bottom line, and it doesn't have strong incentives to help Via to perform well," said David Jeanes of Transport 2000, a non-profit federation of consumer groups.

"And so in a crunch, Via doesn't get the track capacity that it needs."

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