Via Rail passengers vented frustration about cancelled trips along the carrier’s Toronto-Ottawa and Toronto-Montreal routes, as a freight-train derailment and a messy winter storm upended their holiday plans for a third day in a row.
All trains along those high-frequency routes were cancelled on Christmas and Boxing Day, a result of a Canadian National Railway Co. train coming off the tracks near Grafton, Ont., on Dec. 24. Some Via trains were also cancelled that day.
CN, which transports freight, owns a majority of the track between Montreal and Toronto. Its crews are handling the cleanup.
The problems had started a day before the derailment, on Dec. 23, when a number of Via Rail trains ran into weather-related delays, including one train that took 23 hours to travel from Toronto to Ottawa – a route that would normally take about four and a half.
On Monday afternoon, Via spokesman Philippe Cannon confirmed to The Globe and Mail that all trains scheduled for Tuesday are set to run, but on a modified schedule.
More than half a dozen Via travellers who spoke to The Globe expressed frustration over the Crown corporation’s handling of the cancellations.
They characterized Via’s communications as last-minute, vague, confusing and at times non-existent. Several said the lack of clarity led them to make other travel plans so they could avoid being stranded without medication or away from pets. Others wondered why Via does not have a protocol for automatically rebooking travellers on the next available trip, as is common among airlines.
Christine Szymanski, who lives in Toronto, was visiting family in Montreal when she found out, on Sunday evening, that her Monday train was cancelled. With no indication of when trains might resume, and with only enough medication to last an extra day, she booked a flight home to Toronto for $500.
“I’m going to get home, but it’s costing me a fortune. I’m on a pension. So I don’t have $500 to throw around like this,” Ms. Szymanski said.
She said the cancellation e-mail included information about getting a refund, but no help with rebooking. “There’s nothing. It’s just, ‘Your train’s canceled, good luck,’” she said.
Siba Sabour, who lives in Ottawa, had planned to fly to Michigan to spend Christmas with her fiancé and his family. But her flight was cancelled because of bad weather.
She booked a Dec. 24 Via train to Windsor, but it was cancelled while she was lining up to board. After waiting an hour on the phone to speak to a Via representative, she was rebooked for Christmas Day. But that train was cancelled that evening. Her third booking, for Boxing Day, was cancelled with a similar amount of notice.
“The weather’s not their fault,” she said. “But them waiting every day to 7 or 8 p.m. to let everyone know about the next day’s trains, everyone’s getting their hopes up.”
“Christmas is gone. And we don’t have all the time in the world. You know, we have jobs to get to after,” she added. She has managed to rebook for Dec. 28.
Stephanie Magistrado, a first-year political-science student at the University of Ottawa, was also planning to travel southwest on Dec. 24 to a family gathering, but her train was cancelled just before boarding. A second booking, made for Christmas Day, was also swiftly cancelled.
She spent five hours on hold with Via on Christmas Eve but didn’t get through. When she finally did, on Christmas morning, she secured a spot for Dec 27.
“I kind of don’t want to take the train ever again,” she said, remarking on Via’s last-minute communication.
On Monday, Mr. Cannon, the Via Rail spokesperson, said travellers on Dec. 27 should expect congestion on the affected routes, including the possibility of “significant delays.”
He said all passengers whose trains were cancelled between Dec. 24 and 26 will automatically receive refunds. But he added that they need to contact Via if they want refunds for connecting legs or return trips.
Via did not respond to The Globe’s questions about travellers’ criticisms.
Jonathan Abecassis, a CN spokesperson, said the company’s crews had been working “tirelessly,” with the goal of having one of two sets of tracks reopened by Monday evening.
Willem Klumpenhouwer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Transit Analytics Lab who studies public transit and rail transportation, said Canada’s “very sparse” rail network means routing trains around a derailment is generally not feasible. The situation this past weekend highlights the network’s lack of resilience, he added.
He noted that CN and Canadian Pacific Railway, both of them private freight carriers, own the vast majority of rail track in Canada, which a company like Via would use essentially as a guest.
“CN is a company that’s interested in moving freight, and they will design their network for freight,” he said. “It may not be designed to be as resilient as you might want for a passenger rail network.”