By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
The CEO of Via Rail says the Crown corporation “will not shy away from our responsibilities” after passengers found themselves stranded on trains for hours over the holidays.
Martin Landry, the railway’s interim president, told a parliamentary committee today that Via fell short on communicating with passengers who experienced widespread delays between Dec. 23 and 26 after a winter storm swept across Ontario and Quebec.
He says many cancellations were caused by a CN Rail freight train that derailed east of Toronto.
Via Rail executives told MPs it’s up to CN to clear the infrastructure it owns, with Landry telling the committee he believes it would be best if the passenger rail system had its own tracks.
Members of the House of Commons transport committee focused on the experience of passengers who were stuck aboard Train 55 for some 18 hours after it was struck by a fallen tree while travelling between Ottawa and Toronto.
Those on board told media they did not have proper access to food.
Rita Toporowski, the railway’s chief customer officer, told Thursday’s committee they do keep food and water on board but said what happened to Train 55 was a “unique” situation.
It lasted more than a few hours and they were unable to bring further supplies to passengers, which is another option if they run out, she said.
Landry, speaking in French, told MPs that Train 55 was travelling on tracks owned by CN Rail, and it took the company longer than hoped to clear it from the route.
Via Rail’s appearance comes as some Opposition members of Parliament say it’s time to extend the country’s passenger protection regulations to cover rail transportation, not just air.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra appeared at the committee earlier this month and vowed to toughen up existing rules, which critics argue lack the teeth to hold companies accountable for compensating air passengers.
But in a statement provided to The Canadian Press, Alghabra’s office did not address whether the minister supports calls to expand the existing passenger protection regime to cover those travelling by rail.
“The situation with Via Rail over the holiday season was unacceptable. Passengers deserve to be communicated with, especially during the unprecedented weather conditions Canadians were experiencing,” spokeswoman Nadine Ramadan said in an email.
“The safety of crew and passengers is always a top priority. All options are on the table to strengthen passenger safety even more.”
Via Rail’s appearance follows earlier testimony by leaders at Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing, who faced questions about the hundreds of flights they cancelled or delayed over the holidays.
Sunwing Airlines came under particular scrutiny after hundreds of passengers were left stranded in Mexico, saying they could not get an answer from the company about returning to Canada. They have all since returned to Canada, and the airline has apologized.
Sunwing faced criticism not long after for cancelling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. It has also reduced winter flights out of Moncton, N.B., Fredericton and Halifax.
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.