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Train copyVia Rail pursues flash over practicality in Western Canada

In the federal trek to cut Via Rail’s operating expenses, Via Rail has picked the nation’s winners and losers.

Routes in the heart of central Canada are beefing up while other routes have been cancelled or scaled back.

Last year, Via president and CEO Marc Laliberté announced that by 2013 trains between Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa would be able to take on more passengers. As Via’s busiest market, they’ve already received express services and will add more trips and faster trains this year. What an asset for people in that region.     

With plans for railway expansion in one small area, the rest of the country should fear the axe. Cuts to Via Rail’s funding will be vast and deep this year. Its budget will be cut by close to $290 million in 2013 to 2014, down to $187 million from $475 million last year. This is largely due to the end of stimulus funding through the Economic Action Plan, which provided $1 billion in capital investments to Via Rail.

And what good did all of that investment do out on the prairies, you wonder?

In an interview with the Toronto Star last month, Ryan Robutka, the senior marketing manager for the railroad, emphasizes that a whole train that travels “The Canadian” – a route that travels across the country from Toronto to Vancouver – was refurbished at a cost of a cool $22 million under the Action Plan.

Robutka prides himself in a huge variety of meals now offered on this freshly redone train – “foods that showcase different parts of Canada.” Now travelers can hop on the train in Vancouver to eat a tasty meal of shrimp and scallops.

People on the two-third full train can eat their prime rib meal along the Western plains. Of course, there won’t be many prairie folks sitting on the train to appreciate the culinary ode to their meat and potatoes diet – who do you know that travels by train?

One might expect Via Rail would try to get some mileage out of all the money and pride placed on these improvements. Instead they announced the Toronto to Vancouver route will be scaled back for six months of the year.

One is led to speculate on the purpose of laying down so much money on the train. I haven’t seen an attempt to advertise the upgrades and fine dining available on the Canadian. Not a single commercial, web, radio, newspaper or magazine advertisement.

Its motto states that VIA Rail provides “a more human way to travel.” Instead of focusing on the people traveling around Western Canada, decision makers at Via fixated on fancy upgrades that will make the company look good but lack practical use.

Maybe they should have worked on filling the train before they spent all that money on it.

Chelsea Laskowski

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