The answer is not immediately self-evident.
VIA markets itself as “A More Human Way to Travel”; in many ways that is true. I recently took VIA Rail from Melville, Saskatchewan to Edmonton, Alberta, a distance of approximately 900 km. The accommodations were admittedly much, much more human than even Executive Class on Air Canada. My sleeper cabin was approximately 10’ x 5’, fully private, with a bathroom, sink and bed that I had no idea how to fold out, but thankfully the porter was more than happy to assist in that regard.
In fact, the service personnel on the train were exceptionally more than human. The food was great, the staff friendly and the entire experience positive, that is if one places no or little value on time.
The scheduled departure time for VIA 1 was 5:27 pm and the scheduled arrival time in Edmonton was 6:30 am. I was perplexed as to how a distance that could be easily driven, with breaks, in 9 hours could take 13 hours to travel, since it makes only brief scheduled stops.
The reality is the train stops many, many times. Sometimes it stops for oncoming freight trains, sometimes it stops so freight trains travelling in the same direction can pass and sometimes it stops for no apparent reason at all.
The fact that a passenger VIA train has to yield the right of way to a freight train shows the relative value of the respective commodities to the rail lines.
Only about a dozen people got on VIA 1 at Melville, a remarkably low number, given that it was July (the peak of the holiday season) and the train only departs three times each week.
Sadly, the train arrived in Melville over an hour late and pulled out of the station 90 minutes behind schedule. These events proceeded without any explanation. The time delay equalled the total approximate time for a commercial airline to fly from Regina to Edmonton!!
I did have a wonderful meal in the dining car but it was there that I learned that many of VIA’s passengers are not Canadian but tourists from Europe, Australia and many from the USA.
The VIA “Destinations” magazine boasts that since 2007, the Government of Canada has invested $923M in the transformation of VIA (www.viarail.ca/transformingVIA). Meanwhile, in terms of operating expenses, in 2011, VIA lost $298M; cumulatively between 1980 and 2010, VIA lost approximately an astonishing $13B.
All of which raises a question as to why Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing a rail service that so few Canadians, especially in Western Canada, ever use. And why would we, when it takes longer and costs more than comparable commercial travel??
In the more densely populated central Canadian corridor (Windsor-Quebec City), the train is actually quite popular and with enough customers, presumably could be operated without taxpayer subsidy.
However, so few people are using the VIA service from Toronto-Vancouver that it was recently announced that the service was being cut back from three to two times per week in each direction. This announcement went so unnoticed that our MP office received not a single call or e-mail complaining about this service reduction. If VIA disappeared all together in Western Canada, would anybody even notice?? If VIA Rail Canada really is “A More Human Way to Travel”, why are so few humans actually travelling via VIA?? And is this good value for the Canadian taxpayer??