The VIA passenger train rolled out of the station in downtown Prince George bound for Prince Rupert about an hour-and-a-half behind schedule.
That extra wait didn’t inconvenience many at the city terminal. Just two passengers were on board.
VIA Rail restored passenger service on its Skeena line on July 5 and business has been slow with only a handful of people riding the rail. Now offering once-a-week service to and from Prince Rupert and Jasper, the most any of those trains have had was 14 passengers.
After being shut down for four months due to the pandemic, Via will continue on its reduced Skeena schedule indefinitely, with safety measures in place to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Masks are required for passengers and staff for the duration of their train trips and they are only allowed to remove them if they are eating or drinking. Young children and people with asthma or some other medical conditions that makes breathing difficult do not have to wear masks.
No food service is available on the trains and it’s recommended that people bring their own food. Each passenger is provided a bottle of water and bag of chips. The journey from Prince George to Prince Rupert takes more 12 hours, while the run from Prince George to Jasper takes seven hours. That’s assuming on the rare chance that there are no delays when the train has to wait at a siding for a CN Rail freight train to pass by.
All VIA stations are cleaned and sanitized frequently with stricter protocols to ensure high-contact areas such as door handles, handrails and washrooms won’t be contaminated. Hand sanitizer is available throughout each station and ticket-selling staff are separated from passengers by a Plexiglas shield.
The train to Prince Rupert is scheduled to leave Prince George on Mondays at 8 a.m. and the Jasper train leaves the city on Thursdays at 8:15 a.m.
VIA train travel is subsidized the federal government and fares from Prince George are quite affordable. The cheapest one-way ticket to Prince Rupert costs $87.15, while the one-way rate to Jasper is as low as $74.55 per person. Youth and children do not receive discounted rates.
While there’s only a few people boarding the trains, Tourism Prince George CEO Tracey McBride welcomes the return of the service and is looking forward to the day VIA restores full service to the city.
“More and more people, as they start to ride, will realize you can social distance and its affordable and it’s an awesome way to see our province,” said MacBride. “So I’m hopeful the numbers will increase and we’ll be willing to work with VIA on whatever we can to support that.
“The rates are really great right now so it’s a good option for people to hop on the train.”
Traffic at the Tourism Prince George visitor centre adjacent to the VIA Rail station on First Avenue is down considerable compared to last year, as expected, with the U.S-Canada border still closed. All international tourists arriving at Canadian airports are expected to self-isolate for 14 days. Some interprovincial travel restrictions are still in effect. Alberta is still in Phase 2 of its relaunch strategy and until it reaches Phase 3, interprovincial travel is not recommended.
The visitor centre has had a 50-50 mix of regional travelers and local residents dropping by for tourist information.
“One of the key things (for Prince George residents) is they’re looking for recreation areas to go where they can social distance for hiking and different things like that,” said MacBride. “There’s still very much an emphasis on being outside, so our counselors are really trying to assist with that and maybe show some of the unexplored areas that people maybe don’t know about.”