The government is poised to choose a new Via Rail president after prominent cabinet ministers expressed concerns directly to senior Via officials about malfunctions at rail crossings and the company's public handling of those technical problems.
A government source said Friday that Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is ready to make a recommendation to cabinet on who should replace the interim railway head, adding that the process is already under way. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who has openly criticized the Crown corporation and just days ago sparred with acting head Steve Del Bosco over Via's response to a signal malfunction, told The Globe and Mail that federal officials informed him last week the new president would be appointed within three weeks.
Addressing reporters in Ottawa on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the MP for Ottawa West-Nepean, said Via needs new leadership "sooner rather than later" and hinted a change at the helm is in the offing. "If you can't operate the technical capacities of a rail crossing, let alone simple engagement with the public in an honest, transparent and expeditious basis, I don't think you're qualified to run the railways," Mr. Baird said.
Government sources said Mr. Baird, Transport Canada staff and Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilièvre, who represents Ottawa's Nepean-Carleton riding, held a conference call with senior people at Via several weeks ago to discuss the matter – a hot-button issue ever since September's deadly crash between a local bus and a Via train in the south Ottawa community of Barrhaven. All signals and gates were found to be in working order when the accident occurred.
Mr. Baird said he expressed "significant displeasure" over a recent spate of signal malfunctions and at the company's public engagement strategy, noting he urged Via to tackle both issues immediately. "I then asked who I would hold accountable if that did not happen, and the acting head of Via said he would take personal responsibility," Mr. Baird said of Mr. Del Bosco. "Frankly, two or three weeks later, Via's actions have been unacceptable."
A spokeswoman for Mr. Poilièvre said the minister is in "full agreement" with Mr. Baird's comments on Via, while a spokeswoman for Ms. Raitt said "the minister expects more from Via going forward."
For Mr. Baird, the "last straw" was a signal malfunction near his home this week and Via's decision to circulate a press release mistakenly blaming the city. In a May 1 letter to Mr. Watson, Mr. Del Bosco conceded that the malfunction wasn't caused by a local Ottawa transit bus after all.
Mr. Del Bosco didn't apologize for the public accusation, writing, in part, "We look forward to moving on and working in close collaboration with you and your team to jointly and quickly improve the mobility needs of Ottawa citizens as well as re-installing their confidence in our respective transportation services."
Mr. Watson said he doesn't see a change in the ranks as a panacea, saying the city's first priority isn't the Crown corporation's organizational chart. Still, he said the situation could improve depending on who the government installs as president.
"If he or she decides to be more open and forthright with us, then maybe a new president would make a difference," he said in an interview Friday afternoon. "But at the end of the day Via is more than just one person."
Mr. Baird had previously aired his concerns via Twitter on Thursday night, saying, "It's time for new leadership. The people of #Nepean deserve much better." Such a public rebuke of a Crown corporation's leadership is uncommon, especially by a high-profile cabinet minister.
Mr. Del Bosco, who joined Via in 1978, was appointed interim president and CEO in January of this year. The appointment is made on advice of the Minister of Transport.
A Via spokeswoman said Thursday the company has no comment. Attempts to reach Mr. Del Bosco were unsuccessful.