Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Worried Via workers probe officials on rumoured cuts

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WORRIED Via Rail employees peppered senior company officials with questions about rumoured service cuts and job losses at the Crown corporation's annual meeting Tuesday in Winnipeg.

During a question-and-answer session near the end of the meeting, Winnipegger Jacqueline Robert-Choptuik, an activity co-ordinator on Via's western trains, asked company officials if there was any truth to rumours service between Toronto and Vancouver would be cut from three trains a week to two.

Robert-Choptuik said if that were to happen, "hundreds of us will be losing our jobs."

Via president and CEO Mark Laliberté said the corporation is constantly reviewing its routes and schedules to address changing market demands. And if changes are needed, the details will be announced at the appropriate time. But Robert-Choptuik said she remains convinced the service cuts are coming. And she said that would be foolish when ridership is increasing on The Canadian train, which runs between Toronto and Vancouver.

Robert St. Jean, Via's chief financial officer, said overall, Via ridership has held steady over the last three years. But it still hasn't returned to the level it was before the global recession hit in late 2008.

And although revenues are up $15 million since 2009, St. Jean said they suffered a setback in the first three months of this year, falling 1.5 per cent due to lower passenger volumes.

He blamed the 2.8 per cent decline in passenger revenues on the mild winter, which encouraged more car travel, and on increased competition from airlines and bus companies in the Ontario and Quebec markets.

Officials with the Canadian Auto Workers -- the union that represents the bulk of Via Rail employees -- told reporters they've also heard rumours of looming cuts in service.

Fabien Besson, chairman of Local 4002 of the CAW, said the union heard cuts would be announced at Tuesday's annual meeting. That's why about 100 local Via employees attended the meeting, which was held in the rotunda of Via Rail's historic Union Station on south Main Street.

The fact no announcement was made doesn't ease workers' concerns, Besson said.

Laliberte told reporters the Harper government cut its operational funding to Via Rail this year by about $6.5 million to $256 million.

But it also provided it with an additional $60 million for infrastructure improvements, he said. And as was announced last week, $6.5 million will be spent this year on upgrades to Union Station.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2012 B4

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