Via Rail not afraid of Air Canada’s return to Toronto City Airport
By Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press
Passengers board the 5pm train to Toronto in Montreal, on July 26, 2009. The head of Via Rail says he’s not overly concerned about plans for increased air service between Montreal and Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop airport. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
MONTREAL – Nearly $1 billion in capital investment should help Via Rail better compete against air services, including additional flights between Montreal and Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop airport, the president of Canada’s largest passenger rail service said Monday.
“That’s competition, that’s part of life and we’re ready for that,” Marc Laliberte told reporters following a speech Monday to a North American rail conference.
He said the funding will be used to improve network bottlenecks add new rolling stock, introduce improved WiFi and reservations systems and upgrade stations.
Ultimately, train times will be reduced, allowing Via to use its trains to add more frequent service, including later trains between Ottawa and Montreal.
Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) plans to begin offering up to 15 daily flights between Montreal and Billy Bishop airport beginning in February. Porter Airlines is currently the lone commercial airline connecting Canada’s two largest cities through the downtown airport.
While he’s always concerned about competition, Laliberte said he’s not scared by it.
“It just gives me an incentive to work better.”
Negotiations with CN Rail (TSX:CNR) have already removed freight bottlenecks on the Quebec City to Montreal route, cutting about 20 minutes from the early morning trips. On-time performance has increased to about 90 per cent, reducing a passenger irritant.
Via is also spending more than $300 million on service between Montreal and Toronto to improve “pinch points” that slows service. It will add a third lane to improve travel flow along 64 kilometres of the key travel route.
Stations will be improved across the country, with new stations built in Belleville, Brockville, Cobourg, Dorval, Smiths Falls, Windsor and Oshawa.
Via Rail has received 18 more fuel-efficient locomotives. Rebuilt train cars will be added by the end of 2011.
Improved WiFi, with faster service and a larger broadband will be added to trains on the Quebec City to Windsor corridor by next summer.
The changes are included in the regular ticket price “for the moment.” But ultimately, they will allow business people to work and make efficient use of their trip.
“As a consultant such as a lawyer or an accountant, you can even charge your customers. It’s not time lost,” added Laliberte, who was appointed president and CEO in January.
The improved service is expected to enhance Via Rail’s financial performance, which has already seen the operating deficit reduced by 44 per cent and revenues increase by 85 per cent over the last decade.
The operating deficit will further improve this year to below $500 million, although Laliberte wouldn’t say by how much.
Nor does he expect it to be eliminated entirely because the railway is mandated by government to operate less profitable tourism services and trains to remote regions.
Earlier, Laliberte told the conference that Via Rail was prepared to operate a high-speed rail service in Canada should the federal government choose to start such a service.
The president of the Crown corporation wouldn’t say if he favours such a system in Canada.
Laliberte added that it’s too early to say whether U.S. plans to spend billions of dollars on several high-speed rail networks will have an impact on Canada and its railway suppliers.
Bombardier Transportation (TSX:BBD.B) is expected to be one of the suppliers of rolling stock.
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