Passengers who used VIA Train 651, a daily commuter train on the Kingston-Toronto corridor, were left stranded in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when numerous trains across Canada were cancelled due to a drop in ridership. However, at the end of June 2022, VIA Rail Canada resumed most of its service across the country, with one notable local exception: Train 651 did not come back online, leaving local commuters effectively ‘derailed.’
Amid growing concern among residents in the region over this lack of resumption in service, a partnership of municipalities in eastern Ontario, including Kingston, Quinte West, Belleville, and the counties of Northumberland and Hastings, are pressing for action by VIA.
The consortium of communities released “The Case for Getting VIA Train 651 Back on Track: Report on the critical importance of commuter train services for a growing Eastern Ontario” on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.
This report was based on an online survey of 2,811 area residents, conducted between July 7 and August 5, 2022, about their past use of and anticipated future need for VIA Rail Canada’s commuter train services, and about the impact of the loss of these services.
Their findings indicate that, if service is reinstated, ridership for Train 651 will be greater than pre-pandemic levels. If train service is not returned, these residents will face increased barriers to accessing job opportunities, education and retraining, and medical appointments along the corridor.
Pre-pandemic, 66 per cent of respondents used VIA Train 651 for work and 14 per cent used the service for education and medical purposes, with 76 per cent of the users accessing the service one or more times per week. Meanwhile, 96 per cent of pre-COVID users said that they will return when (if) the service is resumed, with 31 per cent of all survey respondents indicating their intent to access this service as new users.
The report also highlights the impact the current loss of service is having on the economy and the environment. The absence of this service has created a hardship for many commuters who need to travel to work, given the rising cost of fuel for vehicles: 64 per cent of intended users said they need train service to mitgate rising household expenses and high vehicle fuel costs. Further, 82 per cent of intended users want to avoid vehicle use, and 63 per cent want to take action against climate change.
Napanee Mayor and past Warden of Lennox and Addington County Marg Isbester is thankful for the other municipalities taking this initiative.
“VIA Rail Train 651 was an important commuting option for the residents of Lennox and Addington County,” she said. “Our county is growing, and with the recent announcements of large economic development projects, it is crucial that Train 651 is reinstated and that Eastern Ontario has access to affordable and convenient transportation options. We appreciate the report that was completed on behalf of Eastern Ontario, and sincerely hope that VIA Rail listens to our concerns.”
Brandt Zätterberg, Deputy CAO of the Town of Greater Napanee, agreed the report was important.
“I personally have accessed Train 651 in the past, as have members of my family, and I understand the importance of this service to the residents of Greater Napanee,” he said. “I do not believe the 2,811 regional residents who participated in the survey hold a view any different than our own residents.”
Zätterberg also noted that “senior staff of Greater Napanee are thankful for the efforts” of the higher-tier municipalities behind the report: “Going forward, senior staff will be encouraging the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee to participate in this transportation initiative wherever possible.” The topic is on the agenda for the October 11, 2022 regular council meeting.
The group behind the report has sent a request for a meeting, along with the report, to both the federal Minister of Transport, who oversees the mandate for “improving the travel experience for Canadians,” and to VIA Rail Canada, urging action in returning Train 651 to service.
The Minister for Transport, The Honourable Omar Alghabra, did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Meanwhile, two local Members of Parliament were also approached for comment and were asked if they had been working on this issue at a federal level. Mark Gerretsen, MP for Kingston and the Islands, had not responded by the time of publication, while Shelby Kramp-Neuman, MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington, refused to comment “at this time.”
This is a developing story with more to come. Kingstonist will provide updates as more information becomes available.