By Dan Rankin
Over a year ago, in June 2015, Via Rail president and CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano was in Stratford to announce that in 2016 a morning commuter train would start back up, bringing people from the Festival City to Toronto at 6:30 am and bringing them back again at 4:30 pm. At the time, CBC reported that according to a senior executive at Via, the new service was expected to start in early 2016.
Welcome to mid-2016, where Via has yet to follow through with its promise, and a local group once committed to seeing rail service from the crown corporation reinstated is looking elsewhere for answers about the future of mass transit in the area.
“Where is Via?” asked Rail Policy Advisor for Transport Action Ontario Greg Gormick on Wednesday, speaking at a meeting of the group that, for the moment, is still called Save Via. “I’d say ‘in a big mess’.”
After their announcement last year, Gormick said he learned Via had not discussed the possibility of bringing back a commuter train into the area with the track owners such as GO Transit, CN or the Goderich-Exeter Railway Company. Instead of paying any attention to the needs of southwestern Ontario, the Montreal-based “monolithic corporation” is “totally focussed on one vanity project,” Gormick said – creating a modern, dedicated, passenger-only rail corridor running from Toronto through Ottawa to Montreal.
“We don’t see them wanting to do much down here,” he said, noting that, compared to Amtrak, Via Rail’s equivalent south of the border, it has no rudder or direction as it lacks legislation governing its responsibilities.
The new government in Ottawa has not inspired hope that needed changes will come anytime soon, Gormick said. “It’s not a priority with this new government,” he said. “They say nice things, but once again we’re into long range studies… If you look at the new studies about the future of rail passenger service in Canada, you’ll find they all come due just before the next election.”
It is issues such as these that, after some introspection, have led Save Via to announcing that it will be rebranding itself as “All Aboard St. Marys.”
“Is it Via we want to save? No. It’s rail passenger service,” said Gormick, who has been working with the four-year-old Save Via group for almost two years. “More basically, it’s access to St. Marys. That’s what we’re really about… We want people to be able to get aboard, to get here, and to points around Southwestern Ontario.”
Save Via president Chris West said All Aboard St. Marys will continue the tradition of Save Via.
As part of the rebrand, the group is planning “All Aboard St. Marys Day” for Sept. 16. The day, which will include a parade starting at old Junction Station on Glass Street that will conclude near the current Via station with a barbecue, will be a “chance for the community to participate” in a discussion about “the need for better rail service,” Gormick said.
In Ontario in 2016, Via Rail is far from owning a monopoly on passenger trains. With GO Transit service expanding in the Waterloo region and Stratford already expressing interest in further GO expansion, there are other potential suitors who could step in to provide needed rail service, Gormick said.
Going forward, Gormick said All Aboard St. Marys would be the “mothership” for a network of other groups pushing for improved rail service that will be known as All Aboard Canada. “Anybody can be a member of our federation, even an individual, if you’ve got one person in a town,” he said.
“It’s important for communities to keep going with these groups and not give up the faith,” said Gormick. “The only way we’ll ever get any change is if people continue to voice their concerns and to put forward ideas. That’s what we want to do over the next little while.”