VIA Rail: In or Out?

Passengers aboard a VIA Rail train bound for Ottawa from Toronto say they have been stuck in Smiths Falls since 4 p.m. without clear explanations from staff as to when they’ll get going.
Photo Source: The Ottawa Citizen

Founded in 1977 and supported largely by Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the VIA Rail was introduced to Canada as the “more human way to travel”. Now, I’m all for preserving tradition and national pride but having become a frequent user of the VIA Rail, it has come to my attention that many processes that may have served us well at one point have become less relevant as time goes on. After returning to Toronto after my last trip with Canada’s national (passenger) railway, I found myself wondering whether the VIA Rail in Canada is on its way in… or its way out?

As an alternative way to travel both short and far distance, the VIA Rail is vital to Canadians and commuters across the provinces. Whether you’re making the journey to and from school in-between semesters or visiting friends half way across the country, the VIA Rail provides an easy and relatively affordable (note – I said affordable, not cheap. Supersaver fares can get you a Toronto-Montreal return tickets for as low as $155.94 but regular fares can be upwards of $220) way to get around a big country without a car while allowing you to lessen your ecological footprint at the same time. Personally, my incentive to take the VIA Rail is twofold. When travelling with company, I find trains much more sociable given that my focus is redirected from the road to my fellow traveller. It’s akin to taking the best part of a road trip and leaving behind the nagging bits like having to stop for gas or deal with bad weather and idiots that feel the need to tweet en route. The other advantage to train travel is that when travelling alone, I have the ability to work, read or nap; whichever makes sense at the time. This being said, I base these advantages on the assumption that everything goes as planned, and that’s nearly never the case.

My most recent journey with the VIA Rail was two weeks ago when I dared to escape Toronto for a romantic weekend in Montreal. Did I get to Montreal and have a fabulous weekend? Yes. But what’s that saying? Life is about the journey? As a social scientist, we are told never to stop observing. Well I am my captain and this is my log:

Toronto-Montreal: February 2012

The ride itself was shaky but the process one that may have been forged from the middle ages. As oppose to a European city, where you simply purchase tickets, look at the sign to identify your platform and proceed to board the train, the entire process in Toronto is one that makes a complete mockery of Canadians and the only train transit we have to get from one place to another. The adventure started as I entered the train station and confirmed my tickets that I’ve already purchased online. Why I needed additional tickets when I’ve printed out a copy of my assigned seat and car is beyond me, but okay – I’ve confirmed my tickets and received… more tickets. But this time they’re yellow so they must be different. I don’t bother to ask.

As I turn the corner en route to the platform, I nearly run into the tail of a line forming all the way from the loading area to the main hall. “Sorry!”, I mutter instinctively. Upon asking what the line was for, I discovered that this queue of passengers, which had clearly begun to form at least 40 minutes ago, was made up of those awaiting my train to Montreal. You have got to be kidding. For those of you who have traveled anywhere in Western Europe, you understand the shock and dismay. Not only do people in Toronto arrive up to an hour before their train departs – they line up 40 minutes before their train is scheduled to leave; despite the assigned seating! Now, by no means do I blame the average Canadian for acting this paranoid – we are socially conditioned from birth to line up for everything. But there comes a point when logic kicks in and we have to ask ourselves “why?”. Someone explain this to me. So anyway, taking one look at the ridiculously long line up, I head over to the empty seats lining the wall and calmly wait until it’s time to board. I watch the process as one person takes the ticket, another offers to help with luggage. It seems like a lot of people to facilitate the boarding of one passenger train, but what do I know?

As I descend the stairs, I’m surprised to see that there is another VIA employee waiting for me! This person’s job was to direct me to the baggage car so I can check my bag. So, off I head to the baggage car where I dump my luggage and then walk all the way back to the very last car (just my luck). Finally, I’ve arrived at car# 6. How did I know it was car #6? Not due to the obvious car signs or indicators that would save the government having to pay an extra employee to point it out to me, that’s for sure! Instead, there’s a kind looking brunette ensuring I’ve made it to the right car. I’m starting to wonder if our government questions the ability of the general populace. Regardless, I smile and take a seat next to a lovely woman who smiles at me in return as I store my computer bag up top and …. nope, wait, my bag doesn’t fit… I’ll try to cram my jacket in there instead. Okay, it fits. So I resume sitting down and stuff my computer bag under my legs. I’ve read all about the WiFi aboard VIA trains so I boot up my HP and attempt connection. Hmmm. I’m connected but there’s no internet. Whaaa? I’m sure it just takes a while to boot up. A couple hours into my journey and I finally gave up hope – somewhat unfortunate, considering I left my book behind in the assumption that I could get some work done en route. Great. Now I’m completely useless.

I may be useless but that guy sure ain’t! You can’t see him? That guy across the aisle from me. He was selected by the train attendant to partake in a safety demonstration. Wait, sorry. He wasn’t selected. He volunteered, after the attendant announced to everyone in the car that she needed two “safety volunteers”. Yes, that’s right, safety volunteers. That same brunette who ushered us so kindly into our car is now demonstrating where the exits are and literally providing one to one training to two representatives from the entire car. Where am I?

As I’m left pondering this clearly overdone safety routine, the creative juices start flowing and I think to myself perhaps I can get some writing done sans internet – but I need to wake up a bit first. Having departed the train station at 6:40am, I’m not exactly bright eyed and beaming. All I need is a cup of tea and maybe a bagel. Yum! Bagel! That sounds perfect. Tick tock and the time goes by. The woman beside me starts asking whether or not the beverage trolley is coming – God, I hope so. Well, two hours into the journey, the magical food cart finally appeared. About time. I’ve been awake now for 4 hours and haven’t had anything to eat – I’m starving! “Can I have one of your bagels please?” I ask the  trolley lady. I had read the train magazine in anticipation and knew they had bagels prepped and ready to get in my belly. “Sorry, we’re out.” She says. Oh man… okay, um, “Yogurt please!”. “We’re out”. “Okay, what do you have?” I ask, getting a tad tired of doing this little “do you, don’t you” dance. Well, the woman thought it easier to list off the umpteen items they didn’t have as oppose to those they did. So I ended up eating hummus for breakfast. That was great. Totally what I wanted to bite into first thing in the morning (rewind to 90’s lingo and enter a big old “NOT”).

Having finished my makeshift breakfast and given up on the WiFi, I thought it would be useful to take a nap. Long behold, my giraffe like frame did not fit too well within the contours of the VIA chair. As my neck hit the part of the chair which was meant for the head of passengers half my size, I realized sleep may not be in the cards for me. I was, however, pleasantly surprised on my journey home to find that the seats slid forward, allowing you to slip into a more comfortable sleeping position. My bad. So, I suffered, probably unnecessarily, until finally we rolled into Montreal. That being said, given the bumpy nature of the ride, I’m not convinced I wouldn’t have been able to lure myself into slumber either way. In fact, bumpy is an understatement. There were times during the ride where I was afraid the poor woman in the window seat was going to fly head first into the glass pane beside her. Probably better that she wasn’t in the aisle, lest she fly head first into the innocent  passenger sitting across the way. I had attributed the bumpiness to wind and the like, but given the recent derailmnent of  a VIA Rail in suburban Ontario, I am beginning to question whether it wasn’t something a little more technical…

In the end, I arrived in Montreal safe and sound but as mentioned, I kept wondering about the processes and services that could be updated or perhaps made more efficient in execution. A few suggestions? If you offer WiFi, makes sure it works. If you offer food, make sure you have it, and don’t wait to offer it half way into the journey. If you make space for luggage in the overhead compartments, make it spacious enough for luggage. And to whomever is responsible for smoothing out the journey, please do. In regards to efficiency: do we really need twenty people welcoming us into the train? I mean, I know we’re Canadian and we’re suppose to be really polite and all, but we are also capable beings who have better things to do than line up time and time again just to adhere to a process that ensures we are really safe and find the system really easy to use. Allow people to print out their ticket at home. Don’t check tickets until people are on board (you check them on board anyway, so what’s the difference?). And finally, please skip the safety demonstration. It’s embarrassing, to all of us.

On a  positive note, it must be said that when it comes to service, VIA Rail gets top points. On every journey, I am greeted with a smile and ushered onto the platform or into my seat by someone who seems to truly enjoy their job. Does it make me forget the other pains I suffered taking the train? No. Does it make it much more tolerable and increase the likelihood that I will be a return customer? Absolutely. While the lack of competition means that VIA Rail will most likely not be making huge upgrades to it’s service anytime soon, it is worthwhile to note for the future what processes could be built upon and which should simply be scraped, for good.

2 thoughts on “VIA Rail: In or Out?

  1. So true. Coming from Europe and first seeing the enormous line-up in the middle of the Toronto train station in front of a pop-up sign saying ‘Platform 17’ was almost as surreal as seeing the same line eventually walk through one (a single one!) entrance towards the actual platform. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes for a reasonably filled train…

    Dear ViaRail, you are not an airline. Even if you copy the most cumbersome processes that are attached to flying (check-in, line-ups, single point of boarding, luggage drop-off, ridiculous ‘safety demonstrations’ plus volunteers) well even with all these processes people will still have an 4 extra hours between Montreal and Toronto to figure out that they’re not exactly flying. The reason trains are successful in Europe is that people save time by not having to jump through all the airport security hoops, effectively annulling the speed advantage of flying on distances of 400 km or less. Think about it ViaRail – or just buy an Interrail ticket and send your leadership on a study abroad trip.

Leave a Reply