Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What About the Ocean?

VIA 6416 at McGivney
VIA 15 detouring through McGivney in July 2005
In the wake of the recent announcement on the fate of the CN Newcastle subdivision, many are asking what would become of the VIA Rail Ocean if the Miramichi-Bathurst section was abandoned. Well, there are three choices, one of which is highly unlikely.

Follow the Atlantic
It's possible that VIA could choose the route of the former Atlantic, running from Halifax and Moncton to Saint John and then through Maine to Sherbrooke and on to Montreal. This is highly unlikely for several reasons, including the customs clearing issues, traveling over two different shortlines (NB Southern and whatever Fortress appoints to run the former MMA), and the fact that I don't think through traffic through Lac-Mégantic has even resumed yet. I believe we can safely dismiss this option.

Through the Wilds
The most obvious choice is to run through central New Brunswick over the CN Napadogan subdivision and into Quebec over the CN Pelletier subdivision, rejoining the current Ocean route at St. Andre Junction. This is CN's main line through the Maritimes and is well maintained... despite a couple of recent derailments.

Here's a map I drew showing that route. Click on the map for an interactive version.

1977 Ocean Detour Schedule
The Ocean has detoured on this route before. Back in 1977 the Ocean was routed here for about six months due to a landslide on the northern route - the amended schedule is shown to the right. In better days a decade earlier, there was an RDC (Rail Diesel Car) that ran between Moncton and Edmundston. Heck, for a short time in the summer of 1967, the Cabot ran between Montreal and Sydney via Edmundston, and from October 29, 1967 to January 7, 1970 the Ocean ran via Edmundston while the Scotian continued on the northern route. This route would be similar today but since the Pelletier cutoff was built, the train would not go through Monk and Ste. Claire.

There are a few downsides to having the Ocean run over the Napadogan.
  • Northern New Brunswick and northern Quebec would lose their passenger service. There is an alternative, Maritime Bus in NB and Orléans Express in Quebec, although I think you'd find most people would rather take the train.
  • There are fewer available passengers over the Napadogan route, given that the Napadogan runs through virtual wilderness between Moncton and Edmundston. This would be a gain for Edmundston, Grand Falls and a few other communities, but fewer passengers = less revenue = more chance of outright cancellation.
  • A capital investment would be required for VIA to provide station facilities, as nothing really exists since passenger service ceased in this area.
One upside might be that Fredericton could get indirect passenger service via a connection at McGivney.. maybe.

Give It Up
The most serious possibility is that VIA Rail will simply stop running the Ocean altogether. The chilling headline Via Rail's Maritime-Quebec passenger service in doubt says it all.

A spokesperson for VIA Rail, Mylène Bélanger, was quoted as saying: "At this time it's still a hypothetical question, but if this section is abandoned we'll look into the commercial viability of all other alternatives, for connecting between Halifax and Montreal, before adopting any other route." (emphasis mine)

As for purchasing the section of track between Bathurst and Miramichi, Bélanger said, "Via Rail does not have the financial resources to acquire or maintain this section of the tracks. So we'll wait for any developments."

But What About The Gaspé?
One more thing - don't forget that the train serving the Gaspé peninsula (the former Chaleur) ran as part of the Ocean between Montreal and Matapedia. If the Ocean was to run a different route, or be cancelled altogether, the economics of the Gaspé train would be even worse as it would have to bear the entire cost of the Montreal-Matapedia section.

You may recall that the Gaspé train has not been running for quite some time, due to track problems. These track problems have been solved between Matapedia and New Carlisle, yet VIA has not committed to returning to the route.

The future of passenger rail east of Montreal is more and more in doubt.

EDIT: Thanks to Tom Box for a few corrections.


Anonymous said...

Sorry state of affairs, VIA seems hell bent on getting rid of passengers. We rode the Ocean several years ago when it was a combo train with the Gaspe train & had hoped to take the Gaspe segment next: too late.

Unknown said...

Actually, I think this is just the first step in CN closing/selling off everything east of Quebec City. After all, how can 2 or 3 trains a day support the maintenance costs of such a long and little used route?

Anonymous said...

I wonder what will happen in the Gaspe with yesterday's announcement of a cement plant at Port Daniel (near New Carlisle). If anything needs to be moved by rail, some work will need to be done.

brux said...

CN will never sell trackage east of Quebec City. It will try and get rid of the coastal route and use the mid-province route. Halifax is just too important for container traffic. And it needs the route for its oil shipments to the East Coast refineries.