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Blustery winter weather led to railway travel issues over the holidays, but Via Rail executives acknowledged to lawmakers on Thursday (Jan. 26) that it failed to properly communicate with impacted passengers.
The House’s Transport committee is currently studying the delays and cancellations experienced by thousands of Canadians who travelled by plans and trains over the holiday rush period.
Airlines have, so far, received most of the attention after leadership from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing shared testimonies at a kick-off hearing earlier this month.
But yesterday, it was Via Rail’s turn to explain the dozens of cancellations and delays its network of trains experienced from Dec. 23 to 26 as a storm rolled through Ontario and Quebec.
The disruptions were caused by a combo of fallen trees, power outages, frozen rail switches and derailments, which led to hundreds of passengers being stranded on rail tracks overnight, Via Rail officials told the committee, as reported by the Toronto Star.
Many of the challenges were beyond Via’s control, it was noted.
“We own and maintain less than three per cent of the tracks on which we operate,” said Martin R. Landry, Via Rail's interim president and CEO.
Canadian National Railway, he said, controls the stretch of railroad the run across Southern Ontario and Quebec, where many disruptions occurred.
“We, as a country, have to look at increasing the resiliency of our transportation infrastructure," Landry told the committee.
Stranded for 18 hours
On Dec. 23, nine Via trains were stuck for hours as a winter storm slammed into areas of the two provinces.
MPs yesterday were particularly concerned about the lack of communication passengers received, noting Via Rail's Train 55 in Ottawa on Dec. 23, which was supposed to arrive in Toronto but instead came to a halt – for 18 hours – near Coburg, ON.
Reports at the time claimed travellers did not receive updates about when the train might move again. They also reportedly were forced to use non-functioning washrooms and pay for emergency food and water.
Rita Toporowski, Via's chief customer officer, told the committee that the company does keep food and water on board for when delays happen.
But what happened on Train 55 was a "unique" circumstance, she said, that lasted more than just a few hours and staff were unable to bring more supplies to passengers, Toporowski said.
In this particular case, the first CN crews that arrived to clear a fallen tree apparently got into an road accident, Landry said.
A second crew was called, but then it was determined that winds were too strong to remove the tree without causing more damage.
"I don't think it's an issue of pointing the blame, because frankly, it's a combination of factors that created this situation," Landry told the committee.
Refunds were offered to customers whose trains were cancelled or delayed, as well as travel credits in some cases, Via said.
Company executives also apologized to passengers.
“I understand the experience they had, and it is not an experience we ever wish to deliver,” Michael Brankley, Via Rail’s vice-president of railway operations, said Thursday.
Officials with the Crown corporation said they have hired a consulting firm to review exactly what went wrong, with a focus on weather planning and operational response and communications.
Via’s testimony came as opposition members of Parliament say it is time to extend Canada’s passenger protections to cover rail travel – and not just air.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, appearing at the committee hearing earlier this month, vowed to beef up existing passenger protections.
The Minister’s handling of the Via Rail’s ordeal, meanwhile, is being criticized.
At Thursday’s hearing, it was revealed that Minister Alghabra did not contact Via Rail during the crisis over Christmas.
He apparently was not personally in touch with officials at Via Rail until a meeting on Jan. 11 – two weeks after the situation was resolved, CBC News reports.
Speaking to journalists yesterday, Alghabra said what passengers endured on Via’s trains was "unacceptable" and he "shared that point of view with Via and the CEO of Via.”
Alghabra said Via must do all it can to make sure "these types of things never happen again."
A spokesperson for Via Rail later told CBC that the Minister, despite not contacting Via directly over Christmas, was “frequently briefed and gave direction to the officials” during the ordeal until it was resolved.
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