OTTAWA, Ont. -- Backbench MPs from the party that gave Canada its first transcontinental railroad appear to be in a losing, behind-the-scenes struggle over cuts at Via Rail, leaving some communities scrambling for new transit options.
The service reductions have hit smaller towns and cities, particularly in the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, the hardest. It came as cold comfort to some communities last week when Via announced increased service in the Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.
"Regrettably, Via is concentrating on the triangle and essentially is walking away from the other communities in Ontario and for that matter perhaps across the country," said Carl Zehr, mayor of Kitchener, Ont.
"I understand their problems in terms of their budgets that they're given, but it's also up to Via to present that vision for the federal government so they can become a nation-building railway again."
Via's reduction in service over the past several months has included:
-- Cutting in half the "Ocean" line between Halifax and Montreal, via northern New Brunswick, to only three trips per week in each direction.
-- The "Canadian" route between Toronto and Vancouver has been reduced from three to two trips per week during the off-season.
-- Ontario cities such as Sarnia, Kitchener and Stratford, Ont. have seen key stops reduced.
-- Fewers stops at cities such as Belleville or Cornwall along the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal line.
-- Twenty per cent of stations are now unstaffed, most recently including Kitchener, Ont., and Sackville, N.B.. In some New Brunswick towns, the disabled are taken by van to Moncton to help board the train.
In places such as Bathurst, N.B., the loss of the regional bus service combined with the cuts to Via's Ocean line has created a perfect transportation storm. Acadian Bus Lines has been replaced by Maritime Bus, but the new company doesn't serve all the same places.
Christine Jean of Bathurst says her son won't be home right at Christmas this year from university and a job in Quebec City because of the lack of workable options. In the days immediately around Christmas, the train to Bathurst is operating eastward only on Dec. 23 and returning westward on Dec. 26, 28 or 30.
Via Rail did not add any additional cars for the holiday season.
"We don't have a bus, we don't have a train that works for availability, and the prices for plane tickets are so exorbitant that I wonder who can afford them. We only have Air Canada who comes to Bathurst," said Jean.
"We're hostages, I don't have any word for it. It's very frustrating for people who live outside the big cities."
Via Rail president Marc Laliberté says ridership was just too chronically low on some of the lines, and the Crown corporation had to make choices.
But transportation activist Greg Gormick, who is leading a cross-Canada, pro-train tour called National Dream Renewed, said the cuts are being perceived as a symbol of regional alienation.
-- The Canadian Press