Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A long wait for train to pull into station

Broken-down freight trains snarl holiday travel

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One weary Christmas traveller popped across the street to the pub instead of spending all night at the train station. Another man said the long wait reminded him of unreliable train service in his homeland of Egypt. And one couple trying to recreate their honeymoon had to cancel a night at a Montreal hotel and a fancy brunch because they were still stuck in Winnipeg.

With delays as long as 19 hours, Winnipeg's Union Station was part construction site, part campground and part Christmas chaos Monday as people waited for overdue loved ones to arrive and for long trips home to begin.

The worst train delays weren't caused by Sunday's dramatic ice storm in Ontario, which downed power lines, grounded plans and detained westbound Via Rail routes in northern Ontario and into Manitoba by several hours.

Instead, it was eastbound trains that suffered nearly a daylong lag thanks to two CN Rail freight trains that broke down near Melville, Sask., blocking the Via Rail train. That left nearly 300 passengers stuck for hours on the track and dozens more waiting overnight in Winnipeg to catch the train on to Ontario.

Via Rail spokesman Jacques Gagnon said nearly all of Via's routes run on tracks belonging to CN or CP Rail. Freight trains typically take priority over passenger trains, and in Western Canada, where hubs are much further apart and travel times much longer, delays get magnified. Asked whether it makes sense to keep hundreds of people stuck on the mainline for hours behind freight trains, Gagnon said that's a question better posed to CN.

Late Monday, CN spokeswoman Emily Hamer said the movement of all trains was hampered by the very cold weather. "Our objective is to keep the entire system working," she said.

University of Saskatchewan student Sabrina Smaczylo said her Via Rail train was late leaving Saskatoon, stopped dead on the track near Melville for six hours and then moved very slowly the rest of the way to Winnipeg.

Power on the train went out frequently, but cars were warm and passengers were offered a refund on tickets. Smaczylo wrote her last university exam Friday and said she was grateful for a chance to sleep during the long ride.

"I'm just going to go with the flow," agreed Corrie Rogge, a young Winnipeg mill worker on his way to see his family in Parry Sound. "You can't get angry about these things."

Also waiting were Nicky and Duncan Pringle, a Winnipeg couple celebrating their 39th anniversary by having a honeymoon do-over in Quebec. The 19-hour delay means the couple will miss Christmas Eve services at Montreal's historic Notre-Dame Basilica and a nice brunch at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, but they said Via staff were doing their best during trying times.

"I said to the guy at the desk, 'You gotta do something to boost my morale' and he jumped on the counter and started dancing," said Duncan. "I'm hoping they ply us with copious amounts of champagne when we get on the train."

Still, passengers had a few gripes. Via's Western Canadian arrivals and departure times aren't updated online, which left most people stuck on hold for up to 90 minutes with Via's 1-800 number.

"I just put it on speaker phone and listened to the music and the 'I'm sorry' message over and over," said Hank Bartkiewicz, en route to Armstrong, Ont. "It said more sorrys than (Toronto Mayor) Rob Ford."

Passengers said they were also frustrated by departure and arrival times that kept changing almost hourly. "First it was 3 a.m., then 5 a.m., then 7:30 a.m., the 9:30 a.m.," said Victor Smyk, who popped across the street to the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome club to kill time Sunday night. "Then they got creative and said 11:45 a.m."

Smyk said it's ridiculous Via, a Crown corporation, doesn't have control of its own track and finds itself at the mercy of freight trains.

Making the long wait worse, Union Station is in the midst of a $6.5-million renovation, so the seating area was a maze of plywood with ripped-up flooring and taped-off areas. And, it was cold.

The Elghoul family, recent immigrants from Egypt and en route to see family in Edmonton, scored a small heater to keep their children warm while they waited. Barakat Elghoul said late trains in Egypt usually come with some kind of compensation for passengers, and more communication.

"I had a huge imagination about Canada -- the good management, the good organization," he said. "All of that is crashed down."

What do you think about the fact freight trains get priority over passenger trains? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 B2


Updated on Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 6:43 AM CST: replaces photo, adds question for discussion

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