Transport Committee Hearings into Holiday Travel Chaos Lead to Calls for Rail to be Included in Passenger Protection Rules

Via Rail
A Via Rail train at the station.

VIA Rail was in the hot seat at the latest House of Commons transportation committee meeting on 26JAN regarding travel chaos over the 2022 holiday period.

While the committee has been previously focused on Canada's major airlines, the rail operator was called this week to explain the cancellations and delays its network experienced from 23-26DEC 2022 as a severe winter weather affected Ontario and Quebec. VIA Rail cancelled all train service on the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal route during that period, citing debris, prolonged power outages, frozen switches and a derailment.

As reported by CTV News, MPs were particularly concerned about one incident where pax boarded Via Rail's Train 55 in Ottawa on 23DEC, scheduled to arrive in Toronto but instead stopping for hours near Cobourg, Ont. According to traveller reports, pax were not given updates on when they would move and were without proper food or toilet access.

VIA Rail CEO and interim president Martin Landry said the issue began when the first crews that arrived to clear a fallen tree on the tracks ended up getting into an accident due to poor road conditions. A second crew then determined that the winds were too strong to remove the tree without causing more damage. The problem was compounded, according to Landry, as the tracks used by VIA are owned by CN, giving VIA little control over track issues. He told MPs he believes it would be best if the passenger rail system had its own tracks.

However, Landry did concede VIA's responsibility to better update their passengers when it comes to delays. Other VIA Rail executives said they are working to improve communication with CN Rail.

One VIA executive told the committee that the rail operator does keep food and water on board in case of delays, but the Train 55 incident was a "unique" situation as it lasted more than a few hours and that staff were unable to onboard more supplies.

VIA Rail apologized on 26JAN to the pax affected by the incident and said they are reviewing why staff charged some stranded passengers for the little food that was on board. As reported by CBC, a spokesperson said it was "inappropriate" to charge for food and that the company is considering refunding passengers who were charged for food and drinks on board. Pax on Train 55 were already refunding the full cost of their tickets.

Adding Train Travel to Passenger Protection Regulations

VIA Rail's appearance at the meeting led to Opposition MPs demanding that Canada's passenger protection regulations should extend to cover rail transportation, not just air, reports CTV News.

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced earlier this week that an overhauled airline passenger bill of rights is coming by this spring. However, Alghabra's office did not address whether the minister supports expending the existing passenger protection regulations to cover rail travel.

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