Brutal treatment by CN is damaging VIA’s flagship Canadian train all across Canada

Aug 3, 2017 @ 16:36

During a summer when more Canadians and international travellers than ever are riding VIA Rail’s transcontinental train, the Canadian, CN is trashing the schedule and the reputation of what is regarded as the world’s finest long-distance passenger train.

“The delays CN is creating for the Canadian and its habitual lack of concern are out of control,” says Transport Action Ontario (TAO) president Robert Wightman. “Whether they care to acknowledge it or not, CN has a contractual service agreement to efficiently and reliably handle the Canadian and all VIA passenger trains on its lines. CN is flagrantly disregarding this deal and shoving the Canadian into sidings clear across Canada to give its freight trains priority.”

VIA’s Canadian runs for 4,313 km from Toronto to Vancouver on CN lines, for which the former Crown corporation receives more than $6 million annually to do little more than allow it on its tracks. In 2009, CN forced VIA to lengthen the Canadian’s schedule because of changes in its freight operations, adding an extra night and more costs to VIA’s service. CN has failed to improve the on-time performance of the train and it is now at its lowest level of reliability ever.

“We’ve heard horror stories about this for quite some time, especially from Northern Ontarians who rely on the Canadian to provide their only access to several remote communities,” says Northern and Eastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN) lead spokesperson Eric Boutilier. “TAO and NEORN asked Toronto rail consultant and policy adviser Greg Gormick to look into this matter and provide his analysis. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the results of CN’s actions.”
Gormick’s analysis found the Canadian from Vancouver arrived in Toronto on schedule only once between March 2 and June 22, 2017. In the past week, it hasn’t arrived on time at all. The Canadian due into Toronto on the morning of Tuesday, August 1 arriving 15 hours and five minutes late, after midnight on Wednesday, August 2.

Because of CN’s insistence on the lengthened schedule, VIA now doesn’t have enough cars to assemble an extra train in Toronto when the eastbound Canadian arrives late from the West. This delays the westbound train’s departure and inconveniences hundreds of passengers. As a typical example, the westbound Canadian scheduled for Tuesday left 12 hours and 46 minutes late on Wednesday because it required the equipment and crew from the late inbound train.

“This drives costs up astronomically,” says Wightman. “Sleeping car passengers, who pay as much as $9,000 per couple for high-end Prestige Class accommodations in the summer, are provided with hotel rooms at VIA’s expense when the Toronto departure is seriously delayed. VIA also provides extra dining car meals to sleeping car patrons when the Canadian runs late.”

In this graph generated by Wawa-news from supplied data, Via has not been ahead of time only once in the 44 days. Note: Due to technical problems, VIA suspended its GPS-based reporting of the on-time performance of the Canadian and other long-haul trains outside the Quebec-Windsor Corridor at the end of June and resumed the service in late July.


However, coach passengers don’t receive complimentary hotel rooms when the train departs Toronto late. Thanks to the Canada 150 Youth Pass VIA offered during this sesquicentennial summer, coach traffic is up more than 40 per cent. There has been considerable grumbling about the delays on social media by many of these new, first-time travellers, who have said it will, indeed, be a “once in a lifetime experience” because they won’t ride the Canadian again.

This is in sharp contrast with the performance of the Canadian’s U.S. counterpart, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which operates daily on the Chicago-Seattle/Portland route just south of the Canada-U.S. border. As part of a 2015 report for Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Bruce Hyer, Gormick statistically compared the two trains (above chart).

Says Boutilier, “While the Canadian’s performance has deteriorated, the Empire Builder has been consistently running on time, only a few minutes late or even early. This is on a route comparable to CN’s, with lots of single-track and extremely heavy freight traffic. Part of that route is owned by Canadian Pacific, which Amtrak considers one of its top service providers.”

TAO and NEORN are calling on Transport Minister Marc Garneau to resolve this situation. Both citizens’ groups point out the damage done to VIA’s Canadian is an insult to travellers and taxpayers, who ultimately pay for the abysmal CN service that undermines VIA’s best efforts.

“The Canadian is a valuable component of our national transportation system, a vital provider of service to remote communities and a strong contributor to Canada’s tourism industry,” says Wightman. “It’s time for Ottawa to call a halt to this shabby treatment of passengers, who should enjoy the same rights as a carload of grain or crude oil. If the government fails to act, then the Canadian’s world-renowned reputation and marketability will be destroyed,”


  1. Telling this pathetic story is like the scene from “Casablanca” when Capt. Renault feigned shock that gambling was going on at Rick’s Cafe in order to have an excuse to follow the Nazi order to shut it down.

    Despite a new party and PM ensconced in Ottawa, notice how nothing changes. The repetition compulsion defining the politicians to accept the carpet bags of donations from CN’s lobbyists continues, to perpetually allow the issue to be avoided and ignored. These same politicos will complain about the higher costs to operate “The Canadian,” e.g., labor, overtime, missed connections, etc.; yet, do nothing to legislate on-time performance criteria.

    As the CN was once maintained by federal and provincial subsidies, including the re-building of its mainlines and sidings before going private, you would think that Ottawa would have ensured a sense of reciprocity for passenger schedules. Perhaps, it is time to flee the CN and make a better deal with the CP, or, legislate the arrangement? After all, the CP was always the preferred route given how more populated it was, and directly served Banff and Lake Louise.

    One has to be amazed at the “hat tricks” pulled off in the smoke filled board room of CP in 1990 between Rocky Mountaineer and CP that pushed off “The Canadian” from the CP to bestow a monopoly routing on the Rocky Mountaineer between Vancouver-Banff-Calgary.

    As evidenced by VIA adding a fourth night to “The Canadian’s” schedule, nothing will change until Parliament expresses its deepest concern and takes appropriate legislative action.

  2. Don’t be so quick to blame CN! Transport Canada has a lot to do with it as well. There is rules in place that CN has to follow in regards to the movement of certain trains, set out by Transport Canada. Also, when a freight train is 10 000′ long, it takes a lot longer for it to go through a siding at 10 – 15mph compared to it going down the main line at 35mph!

  3. I rode #1 Toronto>Vancouver in May. It was an eye opener to witness how much of the route was single-tracked. In addition to CN’s flagrant disregard for on-time performance of the Canadian, single tracking also plays a role, and this must be addressed. Our train was 13+ hours late arriving in Vancouver. Many passengers had hotel and cruise ship reservations that were missed. Large tour groups from England and Australia were on board. How many will ever ride #1 (or #2 eastbound) again?

    Rerouting over CP should be explored. But if most of that route, today, is either single-tracked or not up to passenger train standards, it may not be any better of an option.

  4. It’s all up to “sunny ways, sunny days” Ottawa. The feds do have the regulatory power to fix this situation, but do they really want to?. I’ll take the first five callers who have the answer to that question.

    • Why would you expect politicians to actually work at solving problems. They are too busy taking selfies and attending social events for campaign purposes. They could care less about the average working Canadian.

  5. Re-routing the Canadian to the CP line between Toronto and Winnipeg would have many benefits, not the least being the scenic attraction of the North Shore and the larger population from which to draw ridership.

    Just as important, CP’s infrastructure is better equipped to handle a passenger train. There are more extended and strategically located sidings, and a decent amount of double-track around Sudbury and west of Thunder Bay.

    As for the CN line, it requires a daytime passenger service that would be split into two or three separate operations to better meet local needs and traffic patterns. That has been recommended in a couple of studies in the past, but never acted on.

  6. Being old enough to remember riding on the real Canadian, which ran punctually seven days a week in each direction on the CPR and made the trip in less than seventy hours, I would never ride on the present abortion of a train that bears its name. The CN route is boring and has no scenery worth looking at. It is a complete waste of time and money. Either kill it or restore it to CPR rails, run it seven times a week on a three-night schedule, and penalize the host railway if it fails to arrive on time

  7. Valerie Middleton

    In Saskatchewan there are only 3 stops for the whole province. With our bus service trashed by the provincial govt, a lot of the bus riders were looking to VIA to get to Saskatoon but because it is SOOOO late it is undependable. Even having to go in 2 days early for an appointment is ok but because of the lateness of the train some times you just make it on time! that’s disgusting and we deserve better service. VIA travels a lot faster than those darn freight trains and it should be a priority. Double tracks all the way across Canada would certainly help!!

  8. I think that if the line is as prestigious as this one both the Provincial and Federal governments along with CN should put a plan to have more new track put in to maintain schedules and make it so the best scenery is seen. I bet it’s been a long time coming since a new angle is found to permanently fix the problem.

  9. All of the comments sound like the aftermath of Hunter Harrison and his policies.

  10. It is worth noting that when in opposition, Trudeau, Garneau and the Liberal gang voted for a motion that would have prioritized VIA trains when meeting freight. It was defeated by the Conservatives but now in power the Liberals should simply vote for it now, right? Not likely as they appear beholden to lobbying from CN and their earlier vote was the easy path of looking good without substance.

  11. Traveling by the “Canadian ” by the CPR is a lot better.I have travelled on both roads to the west and back,but I think the CPR performs a lot better.And in some areas it is nicer country to travel trough