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VIA Rail shutting down passenger service in Canada due to blockades

Last Updated Feb 13, 2020 at 11:20 pm EDT

Blockades set up by anti-pipeline protesters have forced Canadian National Railway Co. to shut down its entire network in Eastern Canada and Via Rail to cancel passenger service across the country.

CN said Thursday that the company must initiate a “disciplined and progressive” shutdown in the East and stop and safely secure all transcontinental trains across its Canadian network.

VIA Rail says that also means shutting all its passenger service in Canada, which mostly uses CN track.

“Following a notice from the infrastructure owner, CN Rail, that they are no longer in a position to fulfill their obligations under the Train Service Agreement between VIA Rail and CN Rail, VIA Rail has no other option but to cancel all of its services on the network, effective immediately and until further notice,” read a statement from VIA.

“Passengers are being informed that as of 4pm EST, there will be no more train departures.”

“Upon infrastructure owner instructions, all VIA Rail trains currently en route will be brought to the closest major train station.”

“We understand the impact this unfortunate situation has on our passengers and regret the significant inconvenience this is causing to their travel plans.”

VIA says it is providing full refunds for all cancelled trips, which are being processed automatically but that due to the volume of transactions it may take up to 15 days to receive.

Metrolinx says they are monitoring the situation very closely and are in contact with CN but at this point they are not anticipating any GO Train / UP Express service disruptions on any of their lines.

Part of the tracks they use along Lakeshore West, Barrie and Kitchener are owned by CN Rail but Metrolinx has agreements in place to operate along those corridors.

CN Rail says in a statement it has sought and obtained court orders and requested the assistance of enforcement agencies for the blockades in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.

It says while the blockades have been dismantled in Manitoba and may be ending imminently in B.C., the court order in Ontario has yet to be enforced and continues to be ignored.

Protesters across Canada have said they’re acting in solidarity with those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which crosses the traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northern B.C.

CN Rail says it has tried to adjust its operations to serve customers but it is now left with the only remaining responsible option: progressively shutting down eastern Canadian operations.

“With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protesters,” said JJ Ruest, president and chief executive officer at CN in a news release.

“This situation is regrettable for its impact on the economy and on our railroaders as these protests are unrelated to CN’s activities, and beyond our control. Our shutdown will be progressive and methodical to ensure that we are well set up for recovery, which will come when the illegal blockades end completely.”

The union which represents over 16,000 workers in the rail industry says the CN shutdown could see up to 6,000 workers laid off. Teamsters Canada is calling on the federal government to intervene to find a solution.

“These blockades are having a catastrophic impact on ordinary, working-class Canadians who have nothing to do with the Coastal Gaslink pipeline,” said Teamsters Canada president François Laporte. “Now up to 6,000 of our members risk not being able to support their families or make ends meet this month, and they are powerless to do anything about it.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters after landing in Munich, Germany, that his government is monitoring the situation very closely and he had a long and productive conversation with B.C. Premier John Horgan on the plane.

“We’re concerned with the rule of law and we need to make sure that those laws are followed,” Trudeau said.

The B.C. and federal governments have agreed to meet with Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to discuss a blockade near New Hazelton, B.C.

Gitxsan hereditary chief Norm Stephens said the blockade will be dismantled during the talks but if the province doesn’t agree to cancel Coastal GasLink’s permit then it may go back up.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he is deeply concerned by the impact of the decision CN was forced to make and its effect on Via Rail.

“A safe and efficient passenger and freight rail service is critical to the well-being of our country,” Garneau said.

Garneau said he would be meeting with his provincial counterparts and Indigenous groups on Friday to discuss a way forward.

He said all parties must engage in open and respectful dialogue to ensure this situation is resolved peacefully.

“We are encouraged by the progress on the blockade in New Hazelton. This is a positive development and we are actively working for a similar resolution on all remaining blockades.”