Tori Sutton, Stratford Gazette
VIA Rail has confirmed it will be reducing service to Stratford come fall.
Two trains will be cancelled at the end of October 2012 – Train 86, which departs Stratford for Toronto shortly before 6 a.m. and Train 89, which heads from Toronto to Stratford, arriving at around 12:30 a.m.
The trains operate on the Toronto-Kitchener-London line.
According to a press release issued by VIA on Wednesday morning, the service changes are part of its modernization to better meet customer demand.
Rail schedules will be affected from coast-to-coast, including trains on the Montreal-Ottawa, London-Windsor, Toronto-Niagara Falls, Toronto-Vancouver and Montreal-Halifax corridors.
The company also plans to cut 200 unionized employees, which represent about nine per cent of its workforce.
VIA president and CEO Marc Laliberté said the changes to service match the market demand and offers good value to customers and taxpayers.
He said work would be done to expand track capacity on the busy Montreal-Toronto line, along with introducing a fleet of refurbished locomotives.
“Where the demand varies dramatically by season, we need to adjust frequencies in order to remain efficient,” Laliberté said, regarding the schedule changes.
“In growing markets, we are adding more frequencies to meet customer demand. In addition, mandatory services in regions where there are limited transportation alternatives will remain.
“We are not eliminating rail service on any routes where we operate today and we are maintaining the flexibility to adjust service levels in the future, as customer needs evolve.”
Mayor Dan Mathieson was disappointed by the news and said in a time of environmental stewardship and other challenges, public rail service should be improved, not reduced.
“It limits the opportunity for people to live in smaller urban centres like Stratford and still commute into Toronto for business purposes,” Mathieson said, estimating between 10 and 20 people commute on the early train on a regular basis.
The suggestion people travel to Kitchener to catch GO Transit doesn’t fly with the mayor, who noted there are several issues with the option.
“That is a solution right now but it doesn’t necessarily solve the longer term challenge,” he said.
Those issues include the condition of Highway 7/8 which has been identified as needing improvement, with upgrades still in the planning stages.
As well, some people who rely on train service have mobility issues and do not have the means to travel to another city, he added.
Mathieson would like to see VIA work alongside GO Transit to do a full analysis to determine where GO Transit would be able to cover gaps in service, like morning commuting hours.
“Then maybe there’s an opportunity for VIA to try to survey and market improved services in the afternoon and mid-morning trains,” he said.
For its part, the city will continue to lobby for improved service in the area, including working with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to determine how the reductions will impact its operations.
The city has already written to VIA president Laliberté, and MP Gary Schellenberger has taken concerns to the federal transport minister.
“It is not an easy problem to address and it’s going to require the city to build a business case for increased public transit either through GO Transit or VIA at some point in the future,” Mathieson said.
Karen Schulman Dupuis, who has been commuting to downtown Toronto from her home in Stratford for 10 years, is outraged by the cuts.
“They are affecting hundreds of people who take that train every single day,” she said. “They’re directly impacting my career and my family’s future security.”
She estimates she spends about 20 hours a week on the train, with a roundtrip from Stratford to Toronto and back taking about five hours.
Because of the services and amenities offered by VIA – such as tables and WiFi – she is able to use that commuting time to complete work-related and personal tasks, something that would never happen if she was driving or on a crowded GO train.
“It gives me that time to settle into my day and be productive,” she said. “Driving into Kitchener to catch a GO train would certainly stop that.”
Along with the opportunity for increased productivity, Schulman Dupuis takes the train because it’s economical and environmentally sound.
Driving to Toronto in the morning would take her about three hours in rush hour traffic, and even longer if winter weather made the trip treacherous.
“Major centres across North America and Europe are looking at ways of increasing commuter travel and increasing high speed service and in Ontario, VIA Rail is cutting it,” she said, incredulously.
Over the last decade, she’s witnessed demand grow as more commuters hop aboard Train 86 in the morning. Capacity has doubled to four cars from two.
Though there are few people on the train when it arrives in Stratford from London, it is always half full by the time it picks up passengers in Kitchener and packed by the time it rolls into Georgetown, she said.
Likewise, Train 87 – which is not affected by the cuts – departs Toronto at 5:40 p.m. and arrives in Stratford shortly before 8 p.m. is always full.
She noted the only other evening train to Stratford is the to-be-axed Train 89, which many people use after dinner meetings or evenings out.
“Now I have no option to get home,” she said. “My only option will be to stay in Toronto.”
Schulman Dupuis plans to take her fight online and as of Wednesday afternoon had already created a Facebook page, Save VIA Train 86, where passengers can speak out against the cuts.
“I’m definitely planning to show the support the train system has,” she said.