Thursday, June 6, 2024

2024 - A Pivotal Year for VIA's Car Fleet

A previous post profiled the pivotal nature of two years I selected from VIA's short but engrossing history - 1983 and 1992. I'm going to suggest 2024 is a pivotal year for one facet of VIA - its car fleet. In 1983, the Turbos had just been retired and the LRC's were the new kids on the block, and in '83 and '92 large parts of VIA's car fleet was made surplus by cuts two years previous. In 2024, the Renaissance (British Nightstar) fleet is fading, even the P42's are on borrowed time, and the Siemens Ventures are the new kids on the block. 

Across VIA's far-flung network, we have the abbreviated service lines without Vancouver Island and Gaspe services, and the accumulation of abbreviations that is VIA's future: the 'decade-from-now' nature of the High Speed Rail (HSR) that became High Frequency Rail (HFR) and the 'years-from-now' nature of the Long-Distance, Regional and Remote Fleet Renewal project (LDRR). The Corridor still carries VIA's water, both in passenger counts and income, though Prince Rupert, Churchill, Northern Quebec and the flagship Canadian bring the tourists and serve remote communities. 

Let's look at what VIA still has on its Maintenance Centre tracks and in its shops. This post is a compendium of VIAnformation from several sources both inside and outside VIA Rail that I'm presenting  as a precis of VIA's operational potentialities that are presently pivotal. As I continued creating the post, a cornucopia of compromising conundra crept in to my consciousness in real-time. So I just kept adding bullet points at the end! Special thanks to inveterate VIA rider and uberVIAphile Tim Hayman for his information and assistance with this post. Tim's VIAlogues are always well worth reading! Breaking - Tim just posted this extensively-photographed post on his Ocean-riding experiences!

LRC FLEET - ON THE VERGE OF VENTURE
The advent of the Venture fleet places the LRC coach fleet in peril. I'm tracking their decline in this post. I would expect that major component failures will sideline remaining Economy Class and Business Class LRC cars precipitously. Railfan rumours of LRC cars being scrapped have been impossible to verify so far. Cars are being sidelined at the Toronto Maintenance Centre (TMC), though most that will no longer see service are at the Montreal Maintenance Centre (MMC).

HEAD-END POWER (HEP) FLEET - STILL GOING
Oldest and best? Like most of VIA's fleet, the HEP fleet of both ex-CP Budd cars and second-hand coaches and baggage cars, the latter purchased from U.S. railways, have been in the process of being rebuilt bit by bit. Best-known from their flagship service on VIA's Toronto-Vancouver Canadian, these HEP cars are also a vital part of VIA's remote services as well as the Corridor fleet. The number of specialty cars will dictate the level of service that VIA can provide on each of its existing lines. For a complete listing of ex-CP HEP cars scrapped or sidelined in the pre-VIA and VIA eras, check this post.
BAGGAGES - There were initially 18 cars built for CP, though 603, 8607, 8610, and 617 left the fleet over the years, leaving 12 ex-CP cars in the operating fleet. Of the ex-UP fleet, 8618 was subject to tear-down inspection, so that has reduced the number of ex-UP baggage cars to five, for an operating fleet of 17 HEP baggage cars.

Sixteen of the 17 active cars operated at some point in 2023-24 - all of the remaining ex-UP cars (8619-23), and all of the remaining ex-CP cars with the exception of 8605, (involved in the Togo Sub washout derailment on the Churchill line in 2013 and since sidelined).

That leaves four cars available beyond the currently-needed 12 cars at any given time - so even if VIA keeps one spare baggage car in each of Vancouver, Winnipeg, TMC and MMC, there are not a plethora of baggage cars available!

SKYLINES - Of the original Skyline fleet there are 14 cars remaining with four cars having been retired over the years (508, 513, 8505 and 8514). All 14 cars operated at some point through 2023-24.

With nine Skylines required for the peak season Canadian (three each on three trainsets), plus three at the moment to cover the Churchill consists, that would leave only two spare cars during peak season. If the train to Churchill is given a diner and/or Park car, that could free up the cars that could be reassigned to bring back a dome on the Ocean; but until then, there just aren't enough Skylines to go around without making changes.
DINERS - Refurbishment is continuing along and there should eventually be enough available for use on the Ocean in place of the Renaissance dining set, presuming that VIA would ultimately like to be able to retire the remainder of that troubled fleet. Of the 12 extant diners, seven have been refurbished, two refurbishments are underway, and three remain unrefurbished at the end of May, 2024.
MANORS - Of the original 40 Manors, all operated in 2023-24 on the Canadian, except Cameron, Drummond and Osler, previously used as buffer cars only. Stuart Manor received a tear-down inspection.

RENAISSANCE FLEET - SHRINKING
Rens continue for now on the Ocean - the Ocean used to be equipped with three full Renaissance consists as a six days per week schedule. Now at three trains per week, only two consists are needed. In the years leading up to the pandemic they had been slowly losing operational cars, with others being cannibalized for parts, and regularly seeing full HEP sets substitute for one consist in the off-season. Through 2019, they could only make up a single full Ren consist, plus another hybrid set of Ren/HEP equipment. Post-pandemic, with the new bidirectional operating model necessitated by the loss of the CN loop track in Halifax, both consists run with a hybrid of Ren/HEP equipment - any expansion of the consists at peak season can only be accommodated by adding HEP coaches and Chateau sleepers. Rens will continue to decline in number if more HEP refurbishment is done, with the new long distance fleet not slated to arrive until the early-2030s. Then, it seems VIA would ultimately like to be able to move away from the last remnants of this troublesome fleet. 

Once enough HEP coaches are freed up by the Venture implementation, there should be no need for any more Renaissance economy coaches for Ocean service. There is no shortage of HEP coaches in VIA's fleet; the hold-up had been refurbishing, now well underway. The Corridor Ren coaches are not necessarily electrically nor mechanically compatible with those used on the Ocean.

Considering the limitations listed above concerning the HEP fleet, the bigger issue will be sleepers, diners, and service/lounge cars. If Ocean Rens are gone entirely, sleeping car space would have to be provided entirely with Chateau sleepers. There are many available, though the Chateau cars are in need of refurbishment. But using Chateau sleepers would sacrifice the only currently-accessible sleeper space found in the Ren accessible sleepers. (The Canadian's Prestige Park cars are the only HEP equipment with accessible bedrooms.)
Lounge and economy food service would have to be Skylines, or a hail-Mary like the Panorama* cars (though only one of the three cars has a galley).  Or perhaps some other creative solution, like the conversion of soon to be surplus HEP2 coaches into some sort of galley-equipped lounge? So, we can expect to see the Rens in service on the Ocean for another 10 years at least. See you in 2035?

VENS AND RENS IN THE CORRIDOR
One of my last observations of the Ren fleet in the Corridor was in 2010. Twelve years later at 0222 on 22/2/22, VIA engineer Jordan McCallum climbs into the cab of the first Red to ever arrive in Kingston, on its nocturnal test run.
The Rens' star has been sinking for years, with issues arising from their European roots. In the Corridor, the number of consists had shrunk down to only two sets in regular service, then down to one last year, and with the ongoing Venture implementation, the last of those is on the verge of withdrawal from service. Expected to have their last run on May 26, the Rens have been extended in Corridor service one week! The last Corridor Renaissance-equipped train may have been VIA No 24/29 of Saturday, June 1: 6404-6440-7008-7221-7307-70111-70211-7100-7200.

Effective May 27, there are now nine of the 16 delivered Venture sets in scheduled Corridor service. Those Corridor trains require a rotation of 28 consists of various types. The nine Siemens sets do not include a guard Venture consist at the TMC and one at the MMC, plus the implementation testing of the just-delivered sets. Rens are now used only on the Ocean.

The Siemens order was a planned complete replacement for the Corridor fleet - all P42s, the Corridor-assigned F40s, LRCs, HEP2s, Corridor-assigned HEP1s, and Corridor-assigned Renaissance cars. Given both the condition of the existing fleet and VIA's operating budget and other constraints, it's very unlikely that any legacy equipment will be retained for new Corridor services save some back-up equipment during the transition. A simplified fleet will make maintenance more straightforward.

CORRIDOR CREW CONCERNS

VIA is currently experiencing a shortage of head-end crews in the Corridor. Toronto-Ottawa assignments are unpopular -  not one Ottawa assignment has weekends off. VIA is trying to run a terminal the size of Toronto off the spareboard - it’s just too much. With crews not taking extra work, which the corporation relied heavily on, some trains have no crews.

Seniority has gone to the Montreal runs. Transport Canada is imposing new rest rules this fall which are also viewed as unpopular - time off in the away-from-home hotel. VIA was one of the few employers that did not provide paid sick days, though they came in during the pandemic and are now making it difficult to manage crews. So, every cancelled train is a refused overtime.

VIA has not only bustituted at least one train, a more common practice is to J-train two departures from Ottawa or Toronto as one train. The earlier train sits in the station until the departure time of the later train, then they run together on the later train's schedule. Not a way to make contented passengers, as communication has apparently been slim to nil. (And Slim just left town!)

SOUTHWEST ONTARIO VENTURE OPERATIONS
I have long said that the Ventures will not be implemented on Southwest Ontario (SWO) runs until their maintenance building at the TMC is complete. Though many believe the trainsets are currently being serviced there, servicing is restricted only to fuelling and watering. Others have suggested that it's the low permissible speeds on the lines emanating west from Toronto to Sarnia and Windsor that are restricting VIA basing the Ventures at the TMC. I'm not familiar with anything west of Oshawa, so a post profiling the challenges these services will face is beyond the scope of this post!

Mid-June is the target for Ventures in SWO, as well as Transport Canada sign-off on permissible speeds for VIA's Southwest Ontario runs on CN trackage. Stay tuned, SWO'ers!

SHORT ITEMS BOUND TO MAKE THIS YEAR MORE PIVOTAL!
Several items that are sure to impact the passenger experience throughout 2024:
  • VIA rolled out a new reservation system to very mixed reviews. Many issues occur when booking, and at payment, often a phone call has to be placed. This ruins the efficiency of online booking. Due to changes of train type, i.e. LRC to Venture, some seat assignment changes are made by the system and emails sent to passengers involved. Here's hoping the reservation bugs get worked out, to end the double-booking and on-board confusion that has ensued after the new system debuted.
  • VIA will be introducing new seat-selection and baggage charges on June 10, 2024. Escape fares are the least expensive, but will be subject to $7 per segment on which you pick your seat AND will be non-exchangeable AND non-refundable. Second checked baggage item on long-distance trains will cost $40.
  • VIA's Preference points system also had revisions made, changing award levels. Improvements that aren't viewed as improvements really aren't improvements. 
  • Unsubstantiated reports of 30 VIA managers terminated systemwide, adding to the staffing confusion.
  • VIA is hiring! Officer, Crew Management Centre - responsible for all calling and related operational requirements expected of Locomotive Engineers. This includes adherence to RAC work rest rules, managing daily vacancies, contingency planning and re-crewing engineers enroute due to operational issues. Using the SCAT system, the Crew Controller also manages the administration aspect of locomotive engineers related to: Work schedules, payment, vacation planning, mandatory hours and absenteeism tracking.
  • After a widely-read article on TRAINS magazine's website warning of the imminent demise of the Sudbury-White River RDC's, railfan rumours abounded that the Dayliners were to be immediately replaced with Corridor equipment. This may indeed happen as failures to the venerable Budds take their toll. Complications will be the availability of a baggage car for canoes and beer, and turning facilities at both terminals.
  • Global News report from May 28 - Life imitates art (or at least this post) - This week in Montreal, VIA's President Mario Peloquin unveiled VIA's ambitious five-year strategic plan in front of a sold-out crowd at an event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. It was a pivotal speech at a pivotal moment for passenger rail service in Canada. A report this month from the Crown Corporation found 40 per cent of its trains were late in 2023, while its operating losses increased year-over-year. Via Rail doled out $11.4 million in bonuses during the 2023-24 fiscal. Eleven executives received a total of $1,158,156.15 in bonuses, which works out to an average of $105,286.92 per person.
  • Media pile-on or just a coincidence? The National Post's Chris Selley makes a compelling argument comparing VIA to Canada Post! I'm completely in agreement with VIA's intransigence (or is the realization of imminent or long-term failure?) on whether it's building an HSR or HFR line in the Corridor? I'm going to call it an HIR (High Improbability [of] Realization) line.
  • The new Transport Canada requirements for train-crew rest are to be phased in for passenger train-crews in November. The new Duty and Rest Period Rules for Operating Employees introduce new limits to duty periods, longer rest periods, new limits on cumulative hours worked and reset breaks to ensure a minimum time away from work.
  • *Panorama car 1721 deadheaded west on VIA No 61 with Prestige Class Prince Albert Park from MMC to the TMC on June 6 (below), leaving Toronto on No 1 Sun. June 9 for a charter ex Vancouver, not continued Canadian service. The other two Panoramas are still 'Bad Order'.
  • This past March, VIA tendered a project is to further extend the expected lifetime of thirty-nine (39) GPA-30H locomotives, of their 51-unit fleet, until 2035 by restoring system performance and increasing reliability. In order to better respond to its commercial needs and operational constraints, VIA is looking to the possibility of overhauling the locomotives according to a fixed and optional number of units. This program is NOT related to VIA’s Long-Distance, Regional and Remote Fleet Renewal project (LDRR).
I'm not saying all is doom-and-gloom for VIA Rail Canada's far-flung network and its polyglot passenger car fleet. When we look back on 2024 as one might have on a marker-equipped blue & yellow car, it will be plain to see that this year was an historic and potentially pivotal one. 

VIA...do you really want to know?
Running extra...

No, it's not a VIA Siemens Venture set! It's a Koleje Malopolskie (Lesser Poland Railways) regional train Acatus, built by PESA. EN77-005 is named in honour of Józef Tischner (1931-2000), an eminent Polish priest and a professor of philosophy. Snapped by my sister in Krakow during a recent visit to Poland, watch for this and many other Polish rail-borne vehicles appearing in the latest episode of Railfan Sisters!

Closer to home, we have this Railfan Sister-in-Law view of westbound CN tonnage heading upgrade at Mi 183 CN Kingston Subdivision in the nature walk milieu.



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