Via Rail to axe 200 jobs, adjust service in wake of federal budget cuts

From The Toronto Star:

Via Rail expects to cut 200 unionized jobs, or about nine per cent of its workforce, as the government-owned passenger rail service reduces trips on lines across the country.

No routes are being eliminated, and some in the busy Montreal-Toronto corridor will be increased. But by the end of October, routes in most other areas will see less-frequent service.

“We are aligning our services with customer needs and consolidating our resources where there is a demand,” Via president and CEO Marc Laliberte said Wednesday.

Trip frequencies are being cut on some of big routes, including the Montreal to Halifax line — “The Ocean” — which will be cut to three from six round trips a week.

In the West, “The Canadian” — Via’s only Toronto to Vancouver route — will be reduced to two from three round trips a week in the off-season (October to April). Service during peak season will remain at three trips weekly.

There will also be a number reductions in southwestern Ontario, where GO Transit and other services are available to commuters. London, Aldershot, Kitchener, Niagara Falls and other cities will see reduced Via service.

The cuts come after the federal government’s March budget which cut $41 million in subsidies to Via over three years, but the company insists the trip reductions and job losses are driven by weak off-season demand.

Ridership on “The Ocean” has dropped by 50 per cent over the last 15 years, the company said, and ridership on “The Canadian” in winter months has been dropping steadily. Services in southwestern Ontario have seen competition from commuter rail and other modes of transit.

But Jennifer Brown, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 4005, said demand is up by 7.8 per cent since last year and by nearly 25 per cent in the peak season.

“So where they’re getting their numbers we don’t know. I work on board and from January my trains have been sold out,” she said.

Brown, who works on trains between Halifax and Montreal one day a week, expects to be laid off this fall.

She also questions Via’s marketing efforts to attract more passengers. “We don’t see any marketing down here in the East to get more people out to travel by train,” she said in an interview from Halifax.

Brown said about 45 people in the Halifax-Moncton area could lose their jobs, but she hopes retirement packages will be offered to reduce layoffs.

Dave Kissack, a bargaining agent with the union in Western Canada, said the cuts come as a shock.

“I think it’s indicative of the government in general in Canada, not having a national transportation policy and not committing to anything more than hack-and-slash at every opportunity,” he said.

The cuts were also criticized by Harold Nicholson, president of Transport Action Atlantic, a public transportation advocacy group.

“While the rest of the G20 nations invest heavily and wisely in expanding their rail passenger services, Canada’s long-standing policy of cutting Via continues,” said Nicholson.

“These cuts are wrong to the core and the destructiveness of this latest round will soon become apparent, much to the detriment of the more than four million passengers who use Via annually.”

Laliberte said Halifax and Moncton will be hardest hit by job losses, but he hopes that layoffs can be avoided in most cases.

“The normal attrition rate that we have at Via is about eight per cent of our workforce, and we’re talking about a reduction of nine per cent of our workforce, so we expect that a lot of the employees that are going to be affected will be able to keep a job.”

Via notes that it has reduced it management ranks by 15 per cent since 2009.

The Harper government’s recent budget reduced subsidies to the passenger rail service by $6.5 million this year, $15.1 million in 2013-14 and $19.6 million in 2014-15.

Via Rail has worked to reduce its operating deficit. Excluding pension costs, the shortfall was reduced to $9 million in 2010 and a larger reduction was realized in 2011, Laliberte recently said.