Napanee councillors agree to renew station agreement with VIA, discuss fate of Train 651

The VIA train station in Napanee in the summer of 2022. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Train ridership from Napanee is down. Train service to Napanee is down. The train station in Napanee has been vandalized due to lack of tenancy. These are the facts. But they also create something of a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, making it hard to determine exactly which is the cause and which is the effect.

At its meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2023, the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee received a VIA Rail train station agreement report from Town staff. Council voted to accept the staff recommendation that the Town enter into a full-term renewal of the license agreement with VIA Rail Canada, with Council to review and endorse the agreement prior to its execution.  

The staff report detailed some of the background of the agreement between the Town and VIA Rail with regard to the train station. Since the Town obtained title to the train station building in 1989, the Town and VIA Rail have had an agreement in place whereby the Town ensures the landing platform is kept clear and accessible and that the building is available as a waiting room for train passengers, in exchange for an annual operating fee. 

For 2023, the revenue the Town receives to do this is approximately $7,000. However, due to extensive vandalism in 2022, and repair costs exceeding the annual revenue provided by this contract, the Town entered into a six-month extension on the contract, rather than a full renewal, in order to assess the costs and benefits of the agreement. 

Council also approved designating $25,000 in the 2023 budget to install lights, security cameras, and other improvements at the train station to repair the lobby and reduce future vandalism. This work will also include exterior beautification, and flower planters have been donated by Communities in Bloom

Staff recommended that the building remain closed to the public temporarily until the security measures and necessary repairs have been completed, but that the long-term goal be to maintain the building as a full stop rather than a platform-only stop; also, that the agreement be renewed based on the broader community benefit of providing a train stop. 

VIA has let the Town know that, should the building remain closed to passengers permanently, the stop would not be discontinued, but it would be downgraded.

However, in a sense, that has already happened, since VIA Train 651 — a daily commuter train on the Kingston-Toronto corridor — was cancelled along with numerous other trains across Canada in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 Napanee commuters who took the train to Toronto effectively ‘derailed.’

This was certainly on the minds of Councillor Dave Pinnell and Councillor Angela Hicks, both of whom raised the cancellation of Train 651 as an obvious reason the Napanee station has had fewer riders.

VIA Rail has provided ridership numbers for the Napanee stop, indicating that 2019 saw 3,461 riders, whereas in 2022 only 2,358 people used the stop.  

Pinnell asked if there have been any “good feelings” coming from VIA with regard to reinstating the commuter train.

The Town’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) John Pinsent answered, “Our discussions to date have simply been on trying to figure out what traffic we’ve had [and] the disposition of the train station today. We have talked about the pricing structure in terms of ‘sometimes it actually costs more to have the stop here than in other communities.’ So I think what we’re trying to do right now is determine the continuation of the lease, and then we’re going to get into the discussions of the pricing and future stops at that train station [and how] we make it more accessible for Napanee residents.”

Hicks pointed out the obvious ‘chicken and egg’ effect: cancelling Train 651 and not bringing it back could certainly be the reason VIA saw 1,000 fewer riders post-pandemic. She also asked whether it was the case that former councillor Ellen Johnson had been working on this with VIA in the last term of council.

Hicks was correct. At its regular meeting on Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2022, Council approved a motion by then-councillor Johnson recommending Council endorse the results of the report “The Case for Getting VIA Train 651 Back on Track.” The motion also stated that Council “will provide a letter of support to the President of VIA Rail requesting the return of Train 651, with a copy to be sent to our local MPP; and further, that staff continue working with our regional municipalities to advocate for improved rail transit.” 

At that time, Brandt Zätterberg, Napanee’s General Manager of Community & Corporate Services, told Kingstonist 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.”

However, when Pinsent answered Hicks’s question, he acknowledged, “I don’t think we’ve really had any serious discussions with VIA Rail, at least in the last couple of years, about stops [and] the functioning of that train station.”

Pinsent continued, “We are now taking a more holistic look, in terms of what it… represent[s] to the community [and] trying to get somebody in there to use it such that it doesn’t get vandalized. So this is more than simply a discussion about whether we renew the contract; it’s about the future use of the train station in general.”

Following this discussion, Council approved the recommendations from the Heritage Committee and authorized the Committee to assist in the revitalization of the train station building under the direction of Town staff.

As part of these recommendations, Council directed staff to continue with the train station maintenance and security plan as presented in the 2023 budget, and authorized staff to solicit proposals for alternative uses of the train station building that would be compatible with its continued use as a passenger stop. 

As for the fate of the commuter service once provided by the cancelled Train 651, that remains to be seen.

As always, you can read full Council meeting agendas on Napanee’s civic web online, and watch meetings live or recorded on the town’s YouTube channel.

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