When the top executive of VIA Rail visited Sarnia recently, he admitted he came by car because the city’s single-train service couldn’t get him back to Toronto on time.
But if Yves Desjardins-Siciliano’s plan to run as many as four trains a day to Sarnia works out, he could be arriving by rail next year.
The president and CEO of VIA Rail met with applause when he announced massive potential improvement to Sarnia passenger service before a packed house at the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club.
There’s still work to be done to convince freight rail companies to share the track with more passenger traffic, but VIA is ready to start negotiations, he said at a luncheon co-hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce and RAIL (Rail Advocates In Lambton), a grassroots lobby group pushing hard for better train service.
The market has changed since VIA drastically cut Sarnia’s service in 2012 and stopped staffing the local train station, Desjardins-Siciliano said.
“Because the Government of Canada has given us over a billion dollars since 2007, we’ve been able to improve our equipment and technology,” he said. “And demand seems to have picked up at the same time.”
Desjardins-Siciliano said the Crown Corporation runs a sizable deficit and ridership continues to drop in and out of Sarnia. But he believes increased service will draw more passengers.
“Sarnia is falling behind,” he admitted. “VIA is partly to blame and, partly, you are to blame.”
His strategy is to engage the community and urge local residents to use passenger train service much more regularly, Desjardins-Siciliano said.
By announcing more trains for 2016 now, Sarnians can plan on using VIA more, he said. That kind of buy-in, particularly from students, business people and seniors, will support the additional trains.
VIA plans to maintain the existing early-morning departure to Toronto and late-night arrival to Sarnia but shave about an hour off the length of the trip.
The added service will involve two-car commuter trains running during the day between Sarnia and London.
It’s been at least seven years since local politicians and economic development staff began pushing for better passenger service.
In 2013, RAIL formed and became strong advocates.
“You made my day,” RAIL spokesman Jim Houston told Desjardins-Siciliano.
Later, Houston said he is cautiously optimistic the improvements will happen, but he warned negotiations with freight companies like CN could be challenging.
RAIL has requested more meetings with VIA brass to discuss schedules for the new trains.
Desjardins-Siciliano said a VIA representative will be in Sarnia within weeks to assess the condition of the local train station. Water damage will be repaired, he said.
But he didn’t offer much hope the station will be staffed again, even with more daily trains.
“Technology takes away a lot of the need for a manned station,” he said.