Via Rail Ocean Train Service: Fitting the Product to the Market

Longstanding Success

In 2004, Via Rail celebrated the centenary of the Ocean, the longest-running named train service in North America. Over its hundred years of operation, the service has seen many changes in equipment, services and marketing as it has positioned itself to meet the needs of Maritime residents and visitors. This train has been a longstanding success story, offering a lifeline to isolated communities while also linking Halifax and Moncton with Quebec City, Montreal and points west. It has responded to the changing needs of its users, retaining its relevance in the face of strong competition from airlines, bus services and the automobile.

Current Situation

In the last few years, ridership has remained strong during the summer and Christmas travel seasons, but outside these periods it has felt the effect of deep-discount airfares and improved highways.  With discount airlines, luxury cars, large motorcoaches and expanding freeways, is there a future for long-distance passenger rail in Atlantic Canada?

Experience Travel

In North America, long-distance train travel is an experience which can combine transportation needs with other personal objectives such as respite from stress, opportunities to socialize, enroute activities and scenic enjoyment. These more qualitative benefits are of strategic importance in attracting discretionary users who are willing to pay a premium which can help offset operating expenses. This market is often equated with international tourists and visitors. In fact, however, these discretionary users also include domestic travelers who could otherwise fly or drive.

What is commonly overlooked, is that time spent on a full-service long-distance train is also available for other purposes, including overnight sleep, meals, work, meetings, socializing or simply the enjoyment of scenery. Overnight train travel serves a transportation function, but also offers a total experience, especially for those who are able to afford a bedroom. These passengers do not just travel on the train, they live on the train. Whether for tourists or traveling Canadians, this is a vital market distinction from other land transport modes.

For this reason, whenever a popular on-board amenity is removed from a long-distance train, an important reason for choosing to use it is lost, and its overall market potential is eroded. While amenities like dining and observation cars are costly to provide outside the tourist season, they are critical in differentiating the rail product from any other mode. They are strategically important to the year-round passenger rail market because they also attract domestic travellers willing to pay a premium for a unique experience.

Overnight Markets

Limitations in speed, price and frequency outside Via’s Windsor-Quebec City corridor are less important for overnight trips such as between northern New Brunswick and Montreal. There are three reasons for this:

Time effectiveness is more important than trip duration.

Airfares reflect the size of a centre rather than distance between centres.

Trip fares are not the same as trip costs.

Hotel costs can be avoided by using overnight train service.
For example, flights from Moncton to Montreal and eastern Ontario are typically more expensive than comparable flights from Halifax, whereas the rail (and bus) fare is the opposite due to the shorter distance.
Overnight sleeping car travel can be a more effective use of personal time than a nominally short air trip on an inconvenient schedule.

The above opportunities suggest a small but significant business travel market for rail between small to mid-sized centres separated by an overnight trip. In the case of the Ocean, this would apply to markets in northeastern New Brunswick and possibly Moncton.

Regional Markets

Unlike express bus or air services, transcontinental trains are able to serve small communities enroute without detouring from a highway or landing and taking off. They also have potential for superior winter reliability and safety during adverse weather. This basic transportation and "back-up" function is another argument for continued public operational support for Via Rail services.

Specialized Markets

Beyond an overnight trip duration, passenger rail can compete on the basis of advantages related to the nature of rail vehicles:

Rail vehicles offer more space for persons with disabilities, with less need for advance notification.

Rail vehicles can accommodate baggage and specialized equipment, such as bicycles, skis and pets (if adequate heating and air conditioning are provided). Via remote services already support this market through the transportation of camping gear and canoes using conventional baggage cars. The growth of ecotourism suggests that this market has potential on Via Rail services to the Maritimes, though the relatively small doorways to the Renaissance baggage cars currently pose a challenge.  Wheelchair access is an important argument for continued federal operating support for Via Rail services, which also offer more space for people with other mobility deficiencies.

Maximizing the Markets

While tourism is an important component of Via's market and makes a vital contribution to operating revenues, it is not the only component. One must not lose sight of a transportation service relevant and useful to the needs of Canadians from coast to coast. At the same time, if the basic transportation market is overlooked in favour of a luxury-only product, questions may arise as to why such an enterprise should be supported by Canadian tax dollars. Therefore it is critical that Via Rail consider both ends of its market: basic transportation and experience-oriented travel. Moreover, the "experience travel" market is not limited to tourism; it includes Canadians who choose to turn their travel needs into an opportunity for relaxation and enjoyment.

Suggestions by Transport Action Atlantic

Based on the foregoing, Transport Action Atlantic has some suggestions which they believe will further help position the Ocean train service to serve the modern Canadian passenger rail market. Given the current financial constraints, these ideas focus on opportunities using available equipment and existing services.

Experience travel:

Offer an observation or dome car outside the tourist season.Promote the Ocean train service to the Halifax Port Authority as an asset toward establishing Halifax as a cruise ship port of origin.  As a highlight of train travel, an observation or dome car is important in attracting a year-round discretionary transportation market. This could be accomplished by retaining the Park Car throughout the year and charging a fare supplement for its use. Using this existing equipment would avoid the cost of modifying Renaissance shells to create new observation cars.

Join the Halifax Gateway Council. This is a coordinative body representing port users, airlines and railway companies. Via should be a part of this strategic intiative. The opportunity to begin or end a marine cruise with a train trip is a strategic marketing advantage for Halifax, particularly as the station is adjacent to the cruise ship terminal.

Overnight market:

Partner with local Chambers of Commerce and Business Improvement Districts in northern New Brunswick to promote overnight business train travel

based on effective use of time, savings on hotel costs and convenient morning arrival in downtown Montreal. These agencies typically have websites and newsletters for their members, and could carry Via promotion at relatively low cost. 

Regional market:

Expand the range of sleeping accommodation to attract more singles and families as funding permits, for example by converting the standing-room alcoves in the Renaissance lounge/service cars. Via has already taken a commendable step in making the double and triple bedrooms in the Park car available for families.

Advertise the ViaPac parcels service in the Maritimes. The Ocean offers overnight delivery six nights per week, but few people are aware of this parcels service, which could do more to supplement revenue.

Partner with ski operators, universities and tourist accommodations to develop the local market between Halifax and Moncton.  Opportunities include overnight ski trips to Wentworth (opposite the rail line), relocating the Springhill Junction flag stop to Exit 5 of the Trans-Canada Highway (for improved visibility and easy access to Springhill and Oxford); and a "Truro Turnaround" promotion encouraging Halifax families to sample train travel on a same-day-return excursion to Truro (Acadian Lines scheduled buses provide a fallback if either train is delayed).

Inaugurate a Community Rail Partnership.  Formalized cooperation between municipalities, train operators and residents can help support stations, promote services and reduce costs through opportunities for volunteerism and local investment. This movement has done much to augment ridership on British rural railways, and is represented in the U.K. by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (see http://www.acorp.uk.com/ ).  Such partnerships act as a bridge between local communities and the railway industry, through such activities as local advertising, station adoption, promotional events, volunteer tour guides, intermodal coordination, synergy with downtown and heritage revitalization, on-train events and involvement of local railway staff.Via has recently developed a framework for constructive dialogue with users of its Gaspe overnight train; a similar program should be implemented for users of the Ocean train service.

Specialized markets:

Promote the Ocean as a means to reach the Trans-Canada Trail and other regional trail systems. This would emphasize Via’s national significance, celebrate the longstanding association between rails and trails, and complement Via’s recent "Garden Route" promotion. The cross-country ski and snowmobile market would encourage off-peak ridership. Amtrak has already developed several trail/train partnerships with the U.S. National Parks Service.

Carry specialized items in return for a supplementary charge. Items such as skis, bicycles or even pets could be accommodated in a baggage car or transition car if appropriately adapted. Any disincentive of boxing bicycles, turning the handlebars and removing the pedals could be avoided if bicycle racks were added onto the ends of the luggage carts which are used for loading and unloading baggage cars. The ability to travel with large or specialized items is a small but potentially significant market opportunity for passenger rail, would be compatible with Via’s emphasis on ecotourism, and in the case of skis, would build winter travel.

Consider the market for ATV, snowmobile and motorcycle users. While this would require a conventional baggage car ahead of the Renaissance equipment, it would open up a market advantage relative to other modes. This market often attracts large groups of travelers willing to pay a surcharge for carrying their equipment, compounding the revenue potential. Snowmobiling offers an off-season market possibility, especially from Halifax where winters are not predictable, to northern New Brunswick or Quebec.

Market Positioning

Transport Action Atlantic believes the above measures would help establish Via Rail’s Maritime product at both ends of the market for rail travel, on a year-round basis, and for both tourists and Canadians. The Ocean has adapted to many challenges in the past century as markets and technologies have changed. With the creative thinking, energy and initiative that have come to characterize Via Rail, we believe that this important train can continue to serve the needs of visitors and residents for years to come.

Marcus Garnet, LPP, MCIP

President, Transport Action Atlantic

 

 

 

  • An excellent, well thought out presentation.  I wonder if anyone from Amtrak has read Mr. Garnet's treatise?  I look forward to my first trip on the Ocean this coming Fall from Montreal to Halifax and return.

  • I am proud to be a regular supplier of communications materials to VIA Rail Canada, so far be it from me to tamper with the corporation's image.  However, I must take away one claim to fame by its Ocean Limited.  It is the second oldest name train in North America.  Amtrak's Sunset Limited is the longest, continuously-operated name train on this continent.  But 106 years for the Ocean is nothing to sneer at.

  • The Sunset's was the Southern Pacific's before it was Amtrak's.

  • Great Train. Listen to the song "Home in Nova Scotia" by either Hank Snow or George Hamilton IV that makes reference to this wonderful train. A Northbound connection to the Adirondack would be a revenue producer for both trains.

  • A piece of useless rail trivia: Sunset magazine, which now is a free-standing entity, began life as promotional material for the SP.  I guess the sun never sets on Sunset.

  • The market for passenger service lies in the area of travel time reduction. There are so many examples, I would need more space than i'd care to think of to set 'em down, but trying to get people to travel for the experience of being treated nicely on a comfortable conveyance is only a worthwhile effort if your conveyance is the MOST comfortable and your people the NICEST.  The California Zephyr (which did NOT die for lack of patronage) is a great case in point.  If the train had gone twice as fast, the the costs should have (and ultimately would have) been half as much for everything but fuel. But a lot of people who were going where the train was going, would have ridden because they could do it in maybe an extra day or half day.

     Given the dreadful condition of airline service today if you could be within four hours of scheduled air time between any two points, you could fill a train between those point and no one would choose to fly! You might also fill the track with more trains! (a he-- of a lot of assumptions in the above, but you get the idea). The ocean is just as romantic as was the Newfie Bullet, and equally as doomed.  But with Bombardier's true high speed technologies, and Canada's cheap electricity from James Bay, a real high speed line could be built relatively cheaply, and Oceans of people would be interested in it.  Another thing is that since the whole route is through the boonies, building a separate electrified line would not be the undertaking that it would be in NY NJ or PA. What might be fun for a real entrepreneur would be designing a simple single stack high speed container train to run on the same line and at the same 230 MPH or so speed. It could pay the bills.  and the passenger trains would get to share the infrastructure costs. Maybe instead of a 283KIP gross rail load we could do more work in less time and with less track displacement with a LOWER axle load (and a well thought out simple suspension).

      I think it might be time to think about something other than running a landborne barge line, but maybe not.

      I sure wish A. E. Perlman was around to comment on this.

      Tom Engle

  • Tom:  You still have the problem that the airline not only does not pay the full cost of the airports it uses, it is effectively subsidized by various taxpayers who do pay for the airports -- and then they give their customers lousy service.  One example is the CEO of Delta's comment on the new tarmac delay rules in which he threatened his customers with more flight cancellations and even worse service.  What this guy knows about customer service might fill a thimble.  The railroad, passenger and freight, still must pay the full cost of owning and maintaining its infrastructure.  Everything else in your comment is valid.

  • Larry:  You are right about the subsidies, but we have to think about a couple of things.  In North America in general, the passenger train was obsoleted by an airline subsidy system based on the cold war need for airplanes, people who knew how to fly 'em and factories and engineers who knew how to make 'em in great quantity and quickly. A new industrial segment was needed and the Railroads had to give up competing with that need.  They had heroes like Rickenbacher, Curtis LeMay, Jimmy Stewart, and the list goes on. We had a worn out infrastructure, capitalistic ideals, the economics of transportation, and not much more.

     In more recent times though, the direct aircraft subsidies have been reduced (which is WHY the service us so lousy and likely to get worse). For the service I'm thinking about, though, we have a Canadian perspective on subsidies which includes passenger trains (sometimes) and an incentive to use the home product (Bombardier) which already is in the High Speed Rail business (TGV if i remember, is a Bombardier product) and has a government ear that no one in the USA has.  I know it's not very pure, but I'm an engineer, not a philosopher.

    Tom Engle

  • Tom: One of my favorite aphorisms is: "You can always tell an engineer -- but not very much."  You may not be a philosopher, but you have an excellent understanding of history and economics, I think.

    I also think the U.S. passenger train was done in more by the private automobile and the travel flexibility it afforded people than by the airlines.  Air travel was not all that great or even reliable into the 60s and 70s when the passenger trains were rapidly passing from the scene.  Add in loss of the mail traffic, including the stranding of capital as railroads built new facilities for mail handling and then lost the business, and you really have a story of government nonfeasance.

  • Tom: Please consider the number of baby boomers, affluent and with time to spare, who would enjoy a rail experience in the US that would be comparable to the wonderful "Canadian"!  (We're retired and have taken the "Canadian" several times  -- just for the experience of it.  Friends we've told about it have also  ridden it with enthusiastic responses.)  Over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays we've seen trains filled to capacity with families and retirees, many of the latter denied those money-making sleeping car accommodations because Amtrak hadn't adequate equipment!

    What Amtrak needs to acknowledge is that there IS a large ridership out there who are not interested in speed, but in gracious accommodations, good food and a reliable schedule -- and who are willing and able to pay for it.  Amtrak "just" needs to provide those, and then do some advertising.  

  • Angelfire: With all due respect, you are not describing the need for decent rail passenger service in the United States so much as you are describing the desireability of an excursion system.  When Amtrak first was being developed, the original idea at DOT was to operate some reasonably high-speed, relatively short corridors and supplement it with a number of excursion trains of the sort you advocate.  The former never was properly funded by the government - necessary because rail passenger service doesn't pay its way anywhere in the world, and the latter probably isn't justified from a government subsidy standpoint.

  • I'm pleased to see my article about Via Rail's Ocean has led to some lively discussion and debate!  I must say that, if the political level would only support it, I'd love to see a true high-speed rail service between Halifax and Montreal.  But I don't think Canadian politics will ever enable it, and so my article focused on what we might do with what little we already have.  And if we don't do something, the Ocean train might well be doomed like the Newfie Bullet, as one of you has suggested.  But I do believe there is a niche market somewhere between pure transportation and pure excursion.  Some people like myself (and I'm not retired) like to combine their transportation needs with an opportunity to see the vastness and beauty of this amazing continent, and are willing to pay a premium in time and money to do so.  Maybe we're reacting to the ever-increasing speed and frenzie of modern like, like the "Slow Food" movement is doing!  Other people want to bring along bulky recreation items like bikes and canoes, and be allowed to get off in the middle of nowhere (not my preference, but some are more adventurous than I!)  Still others live or work in small towns enroute, which policy makers never see because they're 30,000 feet above in an airplane.  Especially as motorcoaches stop serving these intermediate points, or only stop at nearby interchanges, the potential for transcontinental trains to play a role in small town revitalization and ecotourism potential needs to be considered.   Much as I wish we could get high-speed rail between Montreal and Halifax, I don't think we'll ever see it - though I'm open to any suggestions about how to make it more feasible and affordable.  In the meantime, perhaps we could shave a couple of hours off our one remaining service to the Canadian Maritimes, if the Halifax train could use any future high-speed line as far east as Quebec City, and for the rest of the route, focus on becoming much more reliable in its timekeeping while offering a level of accommodation that air and bus passengers could only dream about.  Or so it seems to me....  I look forward to reading more of your informative and interesting insights.

  • Question: Why must 21st century passenger transportation always be equated with bad-tasting medicine (i.e., not meant to be enjoyable, only existing to serve a purpose)?!

    Tom has already stated how today's commercial airline service is "dreadful," "lousy" and "likely to get worse." [Worse than _dreadful_!] So, why do we believe it would be impossible for conventional passenger trains to compete for business?!

    The MAIN REASON has NOTHING to do with our product's _potential_; rather, it revolves around a shopworn and indefensible idea which has already been mentioned more than once:

    Tom: "The market for passenger service lies in the area of travel time reduction."

    Larry: "When Amtrak first was being developed, the original idea at DOT was to operate some reasonably high-speed, relatively short corridors and supplement it with a number of excursion trains..."

    These two comments (among others) sum up the primary reason why Amtrak has existed almost two score years now, yet has failed to accomplish anything substantive - save for keeping the passenger train on life support. Certainly, one could argue that Amtrak has been consistently shortchanged any time the feds have come 'round, doling out cash...but what would they have done _with_ the money, presuming it had been available? Just what Larry accurately pointed out the U.S. D.O.T. had in mind for them to do all along: create "some reasonably high-speed, relatively short corridors"!

    Our friend garnetm is absolutely right. "Time effectiveness is more important than trip duration"! After all, if elapsed travel time was the only - or even the _primary_ - factor in these matters, why would automobiles still retain the lion's share of passenger traffic between any two major metropolitan areas of less than approximately 1,000 distance (per the B.T.S.)? [In certain rural and western climes, that figure can approach 1,400 miles!] Are we so sure of the conventional passenger train's failure that we're willing to cede whatever business we might capture to the affirmed "dreadful" and "lousy"?!

    Are we really _listening_ to garnetm? Cutting an hour here or there, using improved corridor lines when applicable, improving performance (especially where timekeeping is concerned), proper marketing...would these things truly be to no avail? Is it honestly not possible to sell the concept of working or eating or sleeping while traveling to a "modern" audience?

    We already have equipment designs which can be safely and efficiently operated upon existing infrastructure. We already possess a "conveyance [which] is the MOST comfortable" (as Tom might say). We already enjoy a potential market which has been dramatically increased in size since the beginning of transport deregulation. We even know this same market (by and large) has no _idea_ what the phrase "grand manner" means, so their preconceived notions of "first class" will be far more forgiving (and far less expensive to maintain) than in the days of yore.

    I'm sorry; I just don't get it.

    Garl

  • Garl:  Air service is lousy in large part because the airline business model doesn't work in the current environment and the people who run the ailrines have nothing but contempt for their customers most of the time.  Rail passenger service does not pay its way.  Before Penn Central went bust and Congress became frightened that it might have to nationalize the entire rail industry, the ICC very cavalierly required the railroad companies to cross-subsidize their passenger losses with freight profits.  PC made it obvious that freight profits would not be sufficient to do the job.  Amtrak was a government solution to a problem.  No one ever has said it was the right solution.  Amtrak has had managements of varying quality over the last 40 years.  It rarely has had funding that allowed either for acquisition of new equipment in large numbers or to fund expansion of its system. Keeping the passenger train on life support is the best we have been able to getg out of Congress and the Republican Administrations (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II). If one were to believe their rhetoric and budget requests, Amtrak would have been removed from life support years ago.  I am not opposed to rail passenger service.  I do not believe that land cruises roaming around the National Parks and other tgourism centers is a justifiable use of taxpayer money, just as taxpayers do not support the ocean cruise industry.  I would support an expansion of coverage of the U.S. by point-to-point rail passenger service.  But, it always will be up to Congress to decide how much money it wishes to make available and then to do so.  By the way, you may remember Grande Luxe, the company that operated the American Orient Express, a luxury train operation for those of means who wanted to roam the country in comfort and style.  It went bankrupt.  Now, Xanterra, the company that operates lodging and concession in a number of national parks and which is owned by Phil Anschutz, the Denver billionaire who once owned the Southern Pacific, is trying to set up a new luxury train operation using the former American Orient Express equipment.  I can assure you, Anschutz will not go into business where he might take a loss.  He doesn't do business that way.

  • Larry,

    Please understand that I'm not advocating taxpayer subsidy for land cruises. In fact, VIA's Ocean should never be dismissed as nothing more than a luxury excursion train, but recognised as a viable part of our continental passenger transportation network.

    The biggest problem with Amtrak isn't an over reliance upon an "outdated business model" (or any number of other ignorant, misguided insults we so often hear). Instead, Amtrak's Achilles' heel is a system that is far too small and frequencies which are far too limited. In 39 years, Amtrak's network has never once approached critical mass!

    Amtrak doesn't understand or believe in its own long haul product. In fact, they seem to buy into the "luxury cruise" mindset, themselves! [Personally, I pity those innocents who purchase fares with that expectation in mind.]

    I'm absolutely convinced garnetm "gets it." He mentions how the "time spent on a full-service long-distance train is also available for other purposes, including overnight sleep, meals, work, meetings, socializing or simply the enjoyment of scenery." He sees how trains serve "a transportation function," but also offer an experience totally unique to railroad travel. He points out how "hotel costs can be avoided by using overnight train service" and the way a "business travel market for rail between small to mid-sized centres separated by an overnight trip" exists even today. Furthermore, a long distance train's "basic transportation market" includes a "potential...role in small town revitalization and ecotourism."

    Right now, the primary stumbling block we'll encounter when attempting to recreate a true continental network isn't a lack of money. It's a lack of faith - and the U.S. entity which should be busy preaching it wallows amongst the biggest doubters.

    VIA - and Canada - needs men like garnetm! Perhaps our northern brethren can teach us a thing or two.

    Garl