Resumption of Ottawa-Montreal Via service welcomed amid concerns about impact of prolonged blockades

Roughly 5% of tourists reach Ottawa by rail
Via Rail

The resumption of rail service between Ottawa and Montreal has reopened an “important” corridor for visitors travelling to Canada’s capital, although the ongoing protests disrupting other passenger and freight service is causing concern for the region’s manufacturers.

Via Rail said this week that service on the Montreal-Ottawa corridor would resume Thursday, one week after the Crown corporation shut down virtually its entire national network due to the ongoing blockades sparked by a dispute over the construction of a natural gas pipeline in B.C.

No date has been set for Via service to restart between Ottawa and Toronto.

Steve Ball, the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, estimated that nearly five per cent of visitors to Ottawa travel to the city via rail. Jantine Van Kregten, director of communications at Ottawa Tourism, called the city’s Via Rail link an “important piece of the puzzle” for tourists.

Ball said the rail shutdown did not appear to make a dent in visitor numbers over the Family Day long weekend, which was also the final weekend of Winterlude.

He said there was “no identifiable impact” on hotel bookings and called the weekend “very successful” for local hotel operators. Van Kregten noted that visitors can still reach Ottawa using private vehicles, planes or buses.

Indeed, a Greyhound Lines spokesperson told OBJ that the coach operator is experiencing a “significant” increase in demand and has added additional buses on its routes connecting Ottawa to Toronto and Montreal.

However, Ball predicted that a prolonged disruption to passenger rail service could eventually be a drag on the city’s tourism sector.

“Going forward, there's got to be some impact along the way. We just don't know what it is yet,” Ball said.

The blockades, which have also led to the cancellation of CN Rail freight service, is already having a serious impact on manufacturers across Ontario, according to industry representatives.

Dennis Darby, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said companies in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor are “scrambling to find a way to get materials, goods and parts into their plants so they can continue production and meet customer obligations.”

“And Ottawa is right in the heart of that corridor,” Darby said.

He adds that space on transport trucks is currently in high demand and is not always an option for manufacturers.

“At the end of the day, rail is the most efficient way to move items in large quantities,” he said.

Temporary layoffs

The ongoing disruption led Via Rail to announce Wednesday that it is temporarily laying off 1,000 employees as pressure grows on the federal government to take action against the rail blockades in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline that is scheduled to pass through their traditional lands in British Columbia.

"Until CN Rail opens the remaining tracks for service, Via Rail has no choice but to continue the cancellation of its services on a large part of its network," Via said in a release Thursday. "It is with sincere regret that we must proceed with temporary employee suspensions."

Chief executive Cynthia Garneau called the ongoing interruption due to a 13-day blockade east of Belleville, Ont., “unprecedented.”

“In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that Via Rail, a public intercity passenger rail service, has to interrupt most of its services across the country,” she said in a statement.

Via said it commends the ongoing dialogue efforts between government and demonstrators at the rail blockades.

The company has cancelled more than 530 trains since blockades began on Feb. 6.

Earlier this week, Canadian National Railway Co. temporarily laid off about 450 workers from its operations in Eastern Canada after cancelling more than 400 trains since protests arose.

The Belleville-area blockade on a line bisecting Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has forced CN to shut down one-quarter of its network – all in Eastern Canada – clogging its system from coast to coast.

“It really is all across the country,” Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in a phone interview.

“The whole system starts to break down, and that has effects on a lot of smaller and medium-sized companies,” he said.

“I know one small manufacturer of flags and banners in Quebec that is waiting on a shipment of goods from Taiwan is set to lose a $100,000 contract because she's not available to fulfill, since they're stuck on the rails right now.”

The looming threat to jobs and goods prompted Kelly to send an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warning of dire consequences and reputational damage if the crisis continues.

Agriculture and natural resources are the sectors most affected, but retailers and wholesalers are increasingly feeling the pinch – and have fewer financial resources to weather extended disruptions than large companies – according to the CFIB, which represents 110,000 small and medium businesses.

Slower rail operations and shorter-term blockades hampering access to ports in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, B.C., and Halifax have led to backups, with some ships turned away and cargo rerouted to docks in the U.S. or on to less efficient truck transport, according to the Association of Canadian Port Authorities.

"These are serious effects," Kelly said.

– With a report from the Canadian Press