Monday, April 15, 2024

Time is running out for Via Rail cars from a bygone era

The train cars and locomotives must be replaced or long-distance and inter-regional service will suffer, Via says.

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The smell of diesel greets reporters as they walk on an overhead passageway that overlooks a train yard on Ash St. in Pointe-St-Charles.

Tucked away in a residential corner, the Via Rail maintenance centre is the indoor facility surrounded by Via’s train yard — a site most Montrealers have only ever glimpsed while driving on Gaétain-Laberge Blvd. or riding the REM between Central Station and Nuns’ Island.

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Via Rail trains are seen outside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
Via Rail trains are seen outside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

However, it is the largest of four facilities for repairing and refurbishing Via’s aging long-distance and intercity fleet. The train cars and locomotives here serve areas outside the Quebec-Windsor corridor, connecting smaller communities, providing essential service for remote areas, and making the long-distance trips between Montreal and Halifax and Toronto and Vancouver.

It’s rare for journalists to get inside the train maintenance centre in action, and on this day there are about 30 reporters, photographers and camera operators getting a tour.

The purpose is to highlight the work done by the Montreal crew, but there was also a clear agenda: to highlight the fact the aging equipment is coming to the end of its useful life. Via officials tell reporters that despite the great work of maintenance workers, they had to scrap 25 train cars after a recent inspection because they were too old. Other cars are likely to be called back at the next inspection, and the fleet is already not running at full capacity because the old cars have not been replaced. A long-distance train can pull as many as 20 passenger cars.

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“At a certain point, they have to be replaced. They’re about 75 years old. That’s more than double the lifespan of most other train cars,” Via Rail spokesperson Jean-Vincent Lacroix said. “We have to salute the work of the teams here who perform miracles, but these trains are at the end of their lifespan.”

Members of the Via Rail maintenance team work on cars inside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
Members of the Via Rail maintenance team work on cars inside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

The situation is the same for the locomotives, which are a few years younger, Lacroix said.

He explained that unlike the Quebec-Windsor corridor, which is in the process of being renewed at a cost of $1.5 billion, the future isn’t certain for the long-distance and regional trains, which are the less profitable part of Via’s business.

“This is a determining year for Via,” he said. “If we’re not able to launch the call for tenders this year, there will be impacts on the service in the future years. We would like to mitigate this, and if there’s no replacement by 2035, it will be the end of the long-distance service for Via.”

Via Rail workers work on cars inside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
Members of the Via Rail maintenance team work on cars inside the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Entering the indoor facility, there’s another smell, that of burning metal as teams work to solder underneath the train cars suspended by jacks about five feet in the air and have had their wheels removed. A lot of banging is heard here and the buzzing of power tools.

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There’s a lot of history in this facility. Anyone who rode a long-distance train in their lifetime can probably find the car where they sat or the engine that pulled them here, or parked in the adjacent rail yard.

VIA employees and other reporters reported a sense of nostalgia entering the dining cars and the company’s famous skyline dome car — a feature of the trip to Vancouver, as its upper level has seats underneath a large glass ceiling that offer passengers the best view of the Canadian Rockies. Reporters and photographers crammed into this car and each took a turn to mount the narrow stairway to get a view and take a photograph.

A Via Rail diner car is being updated at the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
A Via Rail diner car is being updated at the Pointe-St-Charles maintenance depot on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

On this day, a dining car was being refurbished. Reporters saw a kitchen and dining area that had been completely stripped on the interior, and then the new version of the same car with a working kitchen, grey tables and chairs with a grey carpet and grey pull-down blinds.

“We’ve replaced the electric and air-conditioning systems,” said André Bouchard, the vice-president of mechanical services. “We also revamped the whole kitchen to make it more ergonomic for the health and safety of the chefs on board. It’s been updated to all the standards as well, but the goal is to ensure the safety of all passengers.”

Most of the train cars were inherited by Via when the Crown Corporation was created in the 1980s. They date back to the 1940s and ’50s, when rail travel in Canada was one of the only ways to see the country at an affordable rate. Entering the cars transports riders to another time, with vintage posters advertising Canadian destinations and tables with checkerboards painted on them.

Lacroix said long-distance rail travel remains popular among Canadians and tourists visiting the country for the first time, comparing the service with the Orleans Express in the U.S.

jmagder@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jasonmagder

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