By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 28, 2022
Allegedly, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
In this case, it’s the other side of the northern border.
VIA Rail Canada, the Canadian cousin of Amtrak, has been the subject of negative press lately, especially in the rail industry trade journals. Some of the authors are predicting the soon-to-be demise of the railroad for a host of alleged reasons.
They are wrong.
A fun fact: Americans generally look at VIA Rail Canada and see a healthy, well-run company with an excellent product which has some inherited flaws, but always provides a good journey.
Canadians generally look at Amtrak and see a healthy, well-run company with an excellent product which has some flaws, but always seems to be growing and getting better. Because Amtrak has a considerably larger system than VIA Rail and receives federal largess in the billions versus the hundreds of millions VIA receives, Canadians think all is well with Amtrak.
Both sides are a little bit right and a lot wrong.
First, some clarification on VIA’s name. Many sources – including far too many in the news media who should know better – incorrectly spell the first word of the company’s name as Via. It’s VIA – all capital letters.
For anyone who has ridden more than one VIA train, they know Canada’s passenger railroad is dedicated to what is best for its passengers.
VIA isn’t shy about its values; this from the current www.viarail.ca (English version) website:
Who we are: 5 million passengers, 3,234 employees, 400+ communities served, $411.1 (CDN) million in revenue per year
VIA Rail Canada Inc.’s mandate is to operate the national passenger rail services on behalf of the Government of Canada, offering intercity rail services and ensuring rail transportation services to regional and remote communities. Its objective is to offer a safe, accessible, efficient, reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly passenger rail service that meets the needs of Canadian passengers.
Our Vision: A smarter way to move people
We aspire to positively impact the lives of those around us: passengers, employees, partners and communities we move. VIA Rail provides sustainable, efficient and effective passenger rail service and our agenda is embedding environmental, social, economic and ethical considerations into our strategy and everyday operations.
Our Mission: Passengers First
Our primary focus is our passengers. We work on improving our services and redefining VIA Rail to provide our passengers with the most enjoyable travel experience and to find better ways to connect Canadian communities. Safety is and will remain paramount.
Go Further Together
We collaborate to yield better results. We deliver as one. We are accountable to our actions to gain and maintain the trust of our shareholder, our customers and our colleagues.
Act Today for a Better Tomorrow
We understand that our actions today will affect the world we live in tomorrow. We embed sustainability as an important criterion in our decisions. We rethink our ways and we challenge the status quo. We reimagine the possible.
Go the Extra Mile
We put the customer at the center of our decision making. We put ourselves in the shoes of our passengers and our colleagues. We create positive experiences for both our customers and our colleagues, so they stay on board. [End of website quote]
There are many differences between VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak; among them are VIA was created by the executive branch (simplified term; Canada has a parliamentary system of federal government) and Amtrak was created by Congress.
When VIA was created it was not afforded some of the authorities Amtrak was provided such as priority over freight train operations on host railroads. This is a huge difference.
Also, the president of VIA is appointed to a set, five year term of office; when the five years are completed they leave the company. The ruling party in Parliament often has a huge influence on the president to be selected. Amtrak’s Board of Directors goes through a nominal executive search, usually with an executive-level headhunter, even though the candidate is often pre-determined by the board, but they go through the motions of making it look “fair.”
Comparing VIA’s annual revenue and ridership to Amtrak’s is like comparing apples to oranges. VIA launches dozens of trains a day from its terminals; Amtrak launches more than 300 trains daily when at full strength. VIA’s annual revenue is less than a half billion dollars; Amtrak’s is over $2 billion.
VIA Rail’s route system length is 7,800 miles; Amtrak’s is 21,400 miles over 44 routes.
The important consideration is how VIA Rail and its employees think of themselves and their mission.
For those of a certain age, we remember the highly successful AVIS rent-a-car advertising campaign theme which went on for multi-years: We’re Number Two. We Try Harder.
That seems to sum up the comparison of VIA Rail Canada to Amtrak: A lot smaller, but a lot more happy employees and passengers.
Anyone who has ridden more than one VIA Rail train, be it a corridor train, remote service train or the Canadian or Ocean knows there is rarely an employee who is not outwardly happy and pleasant and seems to be determined to provide a high level of personal service to passengers. Yes, there will be the occasional exception to that, but it’s rare to encounter.
VIA Rail suffers at the hands of fools in the railroad trade press and the general media. “Hit pieces” abound and, like Mark Twain, the news of its death is greatly exaggerated.
Back at the close of the 1980s VIA had its share of problems which were legitimately reported. But, since that time a new generation has come to run the railroad and they are doing well.