What happens when a cross-country Via train is 16 hours late

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Before getting into the details of being 16 hours late on a cross-country train trip, here’s some Via Rail policy news: Via Rail has responded to on-time troubles with some of its passenger trains by changing its compensation policy. The new policy is: there is no compensation. Via says it will still offer partial refunds, credit for future travel or travel points under certain circumstances if a train running in its Quebec City-Windsor corridor is more than an hour late.

But for Train 1 and Train 2 running between Toronto and Vancouver, there is no compensation for being late as of April 10. The same applies for several other routes as of June 15, including Montreal-Halifax and Jasper-Prince Rupert.

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Via doesn’t own the tracks it runs on and its passenger trains have lower priority than freight trains. As a result, Via trains have to pull over to let freights pass, which is a particular issue in areas with a single track. Delays have become worse, especially between Winnipeg and Toronto, since a crude oil train derailed on March 7, causing a fuel spill and fire in northern Ontario near the town of Gogama. Cleanup and repairs are still happening. Via suspended its passenger service from March 7 to April 10. The track reopened with temporary repairs a few days after the derailment, allowing freight trains to resume running, but low speed limits and heavy traffic made keeping to a schedule impossible for Via, so it stopped service for a while. Since it started running its passenger trains again, Via has had a tough time staying on schedule in the Winnipeg-Toronto section. 

I experienced the delays first-hand when two of us travelled by Via train from Vancouver to Toronto to attend a wedding. Our train left Vancouver on a Tuesday on time at 8:30 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Toronto's Union Station. We were looking forward to a pre-wedding event Saturday evening. With the morning arrival, we thought there would be plenty of margin for delay.

The train, Via's The Canadian, Train 2, was pretty much on schedule as it rolled through the mountains and Prairies. But it got off schedule in a big way as we travelled into northern Ontario. At one point, we stood still for three hours. There were numerous other extended stops, including one caused by the need for a new locomotive crew because the current one had reached their 12-hour on-duty limit.

Train 2 finally arrived in Toronto at 1:15 a.m. on Sunday, nearly 16 hours late. Passengers on our sleeping car didn't actually get off until 1:30 a.m. because of fears of overcrowding on the platform and at customer service as passengers rushed to change travel plans and to complain.

Just to be clear: I am not complaining about the delay. We really enjoyed our train trip, even the last unexpected 16 hours. While on the train, Via treated us well. We took the train because we like train trips and don’t especially like to fly. But people making this trip should be aware that they probably shouldn’t book a further journey or a must-attend event for the day of arrival, just in case.

Our 20- and 21-car train (the big-window Panorama car was dropped in Edmonton), with a passenger count that bounced between roughly 250 and 350, was filled with people who were not in a hurry. But even for them, running 16 hours late caused anxiety, particularly when they were unable to get a cellphone connection in northern Ontario for an entire day to alert friends and family and to make new travel arrangements. At stops, people rushed to the station in search of a land line.

In Via Rail's Panorama car, going through the Rockies in B.C.
Via Rail's Panorama car, going through the Rockies in B.C.

Because we were running so late, we were fed two bonus meals, an additional lunch and dinner. During those meals, there was edgy quipping. When we arrive at Union Station, get into a fight so that you’ll be tossed in jail and have a place to stay. We’ll need to take turns watching for security while we catch a few winks on a Union Station bench. We’re going to dance around the station all night until it’s time for our morning train home. I think that last one was serious.

In the bar car, a clutch of passengers cornered one of the Via train managers and asked for compensation. Pay for a hotel room, pay for a missed airline flight, pay for a missed event. The manager said she could not promise anything and suggested a talk with customer service after we arrived.

The dozen or so people riding in Prestige class were offered, without having to ask, a room in the Royal York Hotel, across the street from Union Station. Prestige class is Via’s new top-tier, with a one-way Vancouver-Toronto fare in a compartment-for-two costing about $6,900.

For those of us who paid much lower fares, nothing was offered apart from the extra meals, many apologies, and a chance to re-book if we were continuing our journeys on Via. We had a hotel room reserved, so we were not in a panic. But other passengers were scrambling, trying to get a hotel room, another train ticket, or another airline ticket.

While Via has had a lot of late trains on its cross-country runs this year, our 16 hours was on the extreme side. Via issued a news release alluding to this, without outright acknowledging the 16-hour delay: “Due to freight congestion, Via Rail’s train #1 is forecasted to depart Toronto on Sunday, May 31st at 8AM. . . . We regret the inconvenience that this situation may cause.”

If things had been on schedule, our Train 2 from Vancouver would have arrrived at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday in Toronto and be transformed into Train 1 leaving for Vancouver at 10 p.m. the same day. That, of course, became impossible when our Train 2 didn’t arrive until 1:15 a.m. the following day.

After getting home to Victoria by airplane I sent an email to Via Rail asking about compensation — maybe some travel points toward another Via trip, I suggested. But I was turned down and had the new no-compensation policy pointed out to me. The delay I experienced was out of Via’s control, the message said.

I can grudgingly accept that. But I wish that Via had alerted me to its persistent troubles with being on time this spring. I would have acknowledged that and made plans to stay on the train for a few more hours, 16 more if necessary.

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My previous posts are here.

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