Prince George passengers escape VIA cutbacks

There's good news for train travellers who board VIA Rail trains between Jasper and Prince Rupert.

Cutbacks to service VIA announced Wednesday will not affect the frequency of those trains, which arrive in Prince George from both locations three times per week.

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"That is a route that is essential, which means it's a mandatory service established in a region where there are only a few or no transportation choices, so it will not be affected," said Mylne Blanger, VIA's senior advisor for media relations.

"We will not touch any of the mandatory services. All itineraries are maintained and we are not eliminating any route where we operate."

VIA plans to cut 200 unionized jobs, which represents nine per cent of its workforce, all due to train frequency cutbacks. Of that total, 29 positions will be lost on the Jasper-to-Vancouver line. Blanger said none of the Jasper-to-Prince Rupert VIA employees will be losing their jobs.

"Going back to what was announced [Wednesday], we are adapting our services to meet market realities as will as meeting the needs of our four million customers and modernizing our facilities," said Blanger. "We have invested over $1 billion in renovating railway tracks, stations and trains. We have entered into new partnerships to improve the customer experience by offering high-tech services like e-ticketing as well as Wi-Fi in the trains. There are new stations being built and we are also renovating many of them."

Service on the Canadian line from Toronto to Vancouver, via Edmonton during the off-peak season from late October to April will be cut from three round trips per week to two.

The increased frequency of CN Rail freight train traffic to and from Prince Rupert, with the expansion of its intermodel container port and higher demand for lumber shipments to China, is putting the pinch on passenger trains. Often, VIA trains have to wait for the freights to pass and customers sometimes have to endure lengthy delays on the outskirts of the city waiting for the track in front of the station to clear. Those delays are becoming more frequent.

"We are doing our best to prevent those things from happening and we are working closely with CN and it's a constant challenge," said Blanger. "This is not just isolated to Prince George."

Hot meals are no longer available on the Prince George train to Prince Rupert or Jasper. All dining cars on the Skeena and Jasper routes were taken out of service and moved to other lines two years ago.

Tourism Prince George chief executive officer Aidan Kelly was relieved to learn the Prince George trains won't be coming less often, and he's hoping some of the renovations Blanger spoke of are on the way for tourists who come to the VIA station on First Avenue, which VIA shares with the Tourism PG visitor centre.

"VIA is an important passenger route that brings some traffic through town and a lot of Europeans, they're fans of rail travel from back home," said Kelly. "It's good we're not on the hit list in terms of service cutbacks, because I don't think there's any space for that in P.G. We just need another rail line now. The passenger trains are constantly being bumped for cargo traffic. It's tough sticking to the schedule around here, it happens regularly. Some people are irritated and other people are aware of it and won't travel on the train. It does wreak havoc with plans. "

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