Ward 7 Coun. Dave Kilgour, whose ward includes Capreol, a town with longstanding ties to the railway, said news that the last three full-time employees in Sudbury are being laid off is a perfect example of what he’s talking about.
When the changes take effect in the fall, VIA will have just three part-time staff working in the city. The three full-time VIA Rail employees at the Capreol and Sudbury Junction stations will be laid off Sept. 27. In addition to job cuts, starting in November, The Canadian, a train that used to travel from Toronto to Vancouver three times a week, will now make the trek just twice a week.
It will, however, go back to three times a week from the beginning of May until the end of October.
“We’re talking about a train that used to run seven days a week across this country – two trains, really, one from Toronto, one from Montreal, joining together in Capreol and heading West,” Kilgour said. “The job cuts are a very important concern, but the bigger concern is the decline in passenger service all across the country.”
Kilgour said VIA has slowly been cutting passenger service over the last several years, with no strategy in place to boost ridership.
“Sometimes rail traffic is generated by advertising, by making the services available and convenient for people,” he said. “Certainly not by setting up stations that are undermanned to the point that if you’re handicapped, you have no assistance to help you get on and off the train; having stations sitting there unmanned in dark corners such as Sudbury Junction.
“That’s not doing anything to improve anything at all. It’s almost like death by stagnation.”
Mylene Belanger, a VIA Rail spokesperson, said ridership has declined in the winter months to the point that it makes no sense to maintain the route three times a week.
“Routes are being adjusted to better reflect customer demand on The Canadian,” Belanger said, adding that about five per cent of traffic on the route originates in Sudbury.
“For efficiency purposes, we had to optimize the use of each resource. As some markets are showing a downward trend in ridership, we had to make adjustments where demand changes drastically on a seasonal basis, as is what happens on The Canadian.”
Belanger said the Budd Car, which travels from Sudbury to White River, isn’t affected by this round of cuts.
“None of these essential routes were impacted,” she said. “We initiated this strategy more than two years ago. We have made many operational improvements and have invested over $1 billion in renovating our tracks, stations, trains ... We have improved the customer experience by offering high-tech services.”
Overall, VIA cutting 200 full-time positions, or about nine per cent of its total unionized workforce. Belanger said management staff has been cut by 15 per cent. The company is focusing on the routes that make economic sense, she added.
“Over 75 per cent of the revenue (on The Canadian) is generated in the high season, between May and the end of October,” Belanger said. “That’s why we are keeping the three rounds trips for this season, but are adjusting to two round trips in the off season.”
For his part, Kilgour is working to arrange a meeting in the fall with an eye on finding ways to convince VIA to change course.
“I’m hoping to bring a strong advocate of rail transportation to town sometime in late September and set up a session to encourage people to come out and maybe think of ideas to convince the government to rethink its whole policy when it comes to rail transportation,” he said.
For example, he said some rail lines in Europe are cutting costs by, for example, combining passenger trains with freight trains.
“They’re all running on the same track. Let’s be innovative, not destructive.”