This week, following the quarterly meeting of VIA Rail’s Board of Directors, my colleague and friend Mr. Paul G. Smith announced his forthcoming departure from the Board.
His positive impact on the Crown corporation began in 2007 when he was asked to become a director. During that time VIA Rail benefitted not only from his professional experience and business acumen, but also from his warm character, openness and passion for the industry. Enthusiasm for VIA Rail’s development and success led him to be appointed the Chairman of the Board in 2010.
Over the 8 years of his dedicated service, VIA Rail modernized and evolved almost every aspect of its operations. In 2007, the same year he joined the team, the Government of Canada began its Capital Investment Program which saw over $1 billion invested in VIA Rail to improve its trains, stations, technology and infrastructure. Mr. Smith also worked to strengthen our relationship with stakeholders in Ottawa as well as with the communities we serve across our Canadian network. In many ways, we are a better company now then we were when Mr. Smith began his mandate.
Over this time, other major improvements were made, including the Board of Directors’ Governance reform, for which new Governance Policies were created. As well, at the time of his departure, the Board will be equally represented by men and women, with a 50/50 split across its 10 members.
Finally, under Mr. Smith’s leadership, many initiatives were implemented to contain and minimize the increase of the Corporation’s operating costs. This was achieved thanks to the work done to streamline the company’s operations and make it more efficient, with an emphasis on responsible economic management. Mr. Smith always took to heart that our biggest “shareholder” was the Canadian taxpayer.
From everyone at VIA Rail, we are truly grateful for the years Paul G. Smith spent with us, serving the Canadian people. We wish him future success with whatever great adventure awaits him next, and leave him with an open-ended invitation: there will always be a seat for you on our trains, Mr. Smith!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting our Heritage station in Cobourg to officially open our fully accessible walkway and heated central platform. Also in attendance were Gil Brocanier, Mayor of Cobourg, MP Richard Norlock, Member of Parliament for Northumberland-Quinte West and Paul G. Smith, Chairman of the Board of VIA Rail. The station itself is beautiful, and dates back to 1911. Given its history, it’s no surprise that it became a Designated Heritage Railway Station in 1993.
Cobourg station is the third within the Kingston subdivision to be outfitted with an overhead walkway, the other two being at Belleville and Oshawa stations. Aside from the improvement to accessibility (the walkways have elevators on either side so that passengers can access the new central platform), the new overhead footbridge was a necessity…
Over the past few years, rail traffic has been increasing exponentially. As many of you may know, 98% of the track on which VIA Rail operates is owned by other rail carriers (such as CN and CP). Therefore, an increase in freight traffic affects our schedule and on-time performance. In order to mitigate the potential delays, a third track was built at various points along the Kingston subdivision – in total 45 miles’ worth of third track was added! This extra track allows passenger and freight trains to overtake and pass each other without needing to slow down or stop on a siding – which is a big benefit for VIA Rail’s passengers. Adding a third track also meant that a way to safely access the track was needed; thus the footbridge.
Since joining VIA Rail, and especially since becoming the President and CEO, I have made it a priority to remain in open communication with our passengers. Though yesterday was the official opening, the walkway in Cobourg has been in operation since February of this year, and we have already received valuable passenger feedback. For example, following client requests, we will be adding more seating within the walkway itself, to both the upper and lower levels.
What VIA Rail does best, why we exist, is to serve the smaller communities along our route. An investment in improving our station and services in Cobourg is an investment in the community itself. We will continue to work in collaboration with the cities and towns along our network, both to improve the services we offer and to make sure VIA Rail remains an important contributor to the communities.
It’s been a great summer at VIA Rail with many new projects and lots of helpful feedback from employees and passengers. We’re looking forward to a great fall too. Here is a little preview of what you’ll be seeing very soon…
First of all, our iconic long-haul train The Canadian will be outfitted with newly refurbished, fully accessible cabin. Committed to ensuring quality passenger rail service to all Canadians, we designed a spacious room with all amenities needed to accommodate people with disabilities. This new cabin includes an en suite bathroom with a fully accessible private shower, and a larger living area. Furthermore, passengers travelling in this room will benefit from “room-service”- meals will be brought to them from the dining car. Canada is a beautiful country, and VIA Rail is proud to offer these improved services to make the trip an enjoyable and comfortable experience for all passengers.
On the fare side, we will be offering two new student passes this fall. VIA Rail is dedicated to providing safe and convenient transportation for Canada’s students – we recognize the role they will play in our country’s future. While travelling university-bound students are surely excited for the independence this new stage of life has in store, we know that everyone gets a little homesick sometimes (and that parents miss having their kids around too!). Luckily, we’ve got two new youth passes, for those weekends where the laundry pile is just too high and the thought of another pizza dinner just doesn’t cut it.
Our 20/20 discount card offers year-round 20% discounts on select fares, while our semester pass provides 120 days of travel for one great price. So whether you’ll be home every other weekend or just for the holidays, VIA Rail has got you covered.
To keep informed about VIA Rail’s continually evolving and improving service, be sure to check back on my President’s blog, follow us on twitter @via_rail / @VIARailPrez and like us on Facebook!
This month on our on train entertainment system you’ll find a couple of new channels featuring some great all-Canadian content.
Looking for new fun facts to tell at your next dinner party? Here’s a way to learn a few lesser-known chronicles from Canada’s history book. Check out the new “History Matters” channel in our Canadian Heritage section featuring vignettes created by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). These remarkable and fascinating stories, told in bite-sized 90-second videos promise to transform you into a Canadian know-it-all in 30 minutes or less.
For some longer content head over to the National Film Board’s Documentaries & Animation section, where a new “75th Anniversary Collection” channel presents five favorite National Film Board films (say that three times fast!). The NFB has been producing award-winning films since 1939, and in celebration of its 75th anniversary Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp collection featuring stills from the five productions. This is a particularly fun project for us because it involves the collaboration of three Canadian Crown corporations. Hopefully you’ll be on one of our Québec-City – Windsor corridor trains soon, because this temporary channel will only be around for a few months.
This new content is only the beginning. With the evolution of our On Train technology, we’ll be able to update our content regularly, create seasonal and themed video channels and even create original content. It’s just one more way we are working to enrich your travel experience.
See you onboard!
Last week, VIA Rail was happy to announce the return of passenger service on the line between Churchill and Gillam in Northern Manitoba. Following a freight train derailment, passenger service was interrupted until the track was deemed safe for passenger trains to continue operations. Citizens of the area expressed their dismay at the situation – a sentiment all of us at VIA Rail shared.
This blog is about these types of incidents that challenge both the goodwill of our customers and our employees’ resilience. At VIA Rail, we take pride in serving the public, especially remote areas such as Churchill where there are few transportation options. It is always as a last resort that we announce the suspension of our train services. Though we understand and empathize with the frustration of the communities whose service gets disrupted, as a responsible public service we cannot and will not sacrifice safety. In the case of the Churchill derailment, we had to ensure that the track met rigorous passenger train safety standards before proceeding with the re-introduction of service. These standards differ from those set out for freight trains, which is why freight train service often resumes earlier than VIA Rail’s passenger train service. While we may be eager to resume operations, it cannot be done at the expense of passenger safety.
The past month has also seen a derailment in the Québec City – Windsor corridor where 80% of our customers travel. Services between Toronto – Ottawa and Toronto – Montréal were suspended for two days. 3,600 passengers were impacted. VIA Rail staff rose to the challenge and did the best in the worst of situations. We were appreciative of our customers’ patience.
These events raise an important question. Currently, VIA Rail operates mostly on tracks owned by other infrastructure providers. The concern therefore becomes: how can VIA Rail optimize partnerships with track owners in order to better serve the public? One of the ways we address this is to improve scheduling and avoid overlap with heavy freight train traffic. On the Sudbury – White River line in Ontario, for example, we recently changed scheduling to leave two hours earlier on certain routes, in order to avoid periods of high freight track congestion. Solutions such as these – taking into account customer needs and working with track owners – are amongst the most effective ways to share the railway. An increase of freight carrier traffic will make cooperation even more important if we are to better serve Canadians.
Through our ongoing communications with our railway partners, we continue to look for innovative ways to improve our service and we are always appreciative of our clients’ understanding when disruptions do occur. Stay connected to hear about upcoming changes and improvements by reading this blog and through my Twitter account @VIARailPrez.
Personally, I am very proud of the dedication and professionalism of our staff onboard trains, at stations and in our call centers and our support personnel at head offices.