Via Rail supporters rally to ‘get back on track’

Passenger rail advocates want to save a 71-kilometre track between Miramichi and Bathurst, N.B. Without the track, Maritimers won’t be able to take the train west.

By Rebecca Brown

Two trains sitting idle at the Via Rail station in Halifax. (Rebecca Brown/Peninsula News)
Two trains sitting idle at the Via Rail station in Halifax. (Rebecca Brown/Peninsula News)

Dozens of community members, passengers and rail advocates rallied in the foyer of the Halifax Via Rail station on Sunday morning for 71 kilometres of passenger rail track between Miramichi and Bathurst, NB. If the government does not invest in maintaining the line, Maritimers could be without train service as early as July.

“I’m very disappointed by the prospect that those cuts will take place,” said Margo Sly, a Via Rail passenger. “I don’t understand how the small towns along the Ocean route will communicate with the rest of the country without the train. I mean, they don’t all have airports.”

Bruce Hyer, the Green Party of Canada MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, led the rally by kicking off his “Save Maritime Rail” whistle stop tour at the station to push for a national transportation strategy.

Bruce Hyer speaks to a crowd of passenger rail supporters in Halifax on Sunday morning. (Rebecca Brown/Peninsula News)
Bruce Hyer speaks to rail supporters in Halifax on Sunday morning. (Rebecca Brown/Peninsula News)

“Out of the G20 countries, Canada is the only one that does not support passenger rail,” said Hyer. “All the others have a national rail strategy and high-speed rail service that runs on time.”

Without help from Ottawa, Via Rail will be forced to discontinue service to large communities in northeastern New Brunswick, most of which lack convenient air and bus transportation. Via Rail enables people in rural communities to get to school and reach specialized health care in larger cities.

$10M needed to secure rail service

In January, CN Rail announced that it would abandon the stretch of track it currently shares with Via Rail between Miramichi and Bathurst because it no longer carries freight on the line. Before discontinuing that part of the line, the 71-kilometre stretch will be offered for sale. Via Rail made a previous statement saying that it cannot afford the $10 million price tag for the track.

CN Rail is allowing five months to receive an offer to purchase the section. It will be offered first to private interests and then to all levels of government. If the section is not purchased, Via Rail will not be allowed to use the track once it is discontinued.

John Pearce of Transport Action Atlantic (TAA) presented his findings at the rally on Sunday. TAA is an advocacy group for public transportation that collects data on the use and availability of transit services in Atlantic Canada.

“The alternative is to run the train through the middle of New Brunswick along the freight line but nobody lives there,” said Pearce. “Rerouting passenger rail service away from those who need it would undermine its ridership.”

According to TAA, Via Rail receives a very small amount of funding compared to highway expenditures. TAA says the $10 million needed to secure the 71-kilometre track is equivalent to upgrading one kilometre of two-lane highway.

“It’s not too late to save Via Rail in the Maritimes,” said Hyer. “We just have to show the government that this matters to us and we will get back on track.”

Hyer boarded the Ocean train heading west from Halifax to Montreal and gave short speeches at station stops along the route. He urged passengers to contact the minister of transport in Ottawa and sign an online petition.

Fran Gregor shares her memories of taking the train: