Cornwall council concerned Via Rail plan doesn’t address service

A sign outside the Via Rail train station in Cornwall, Ont. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston, File)

CORNWALL – Cornwall’s mayor and council are concerned Via Rail’s high frequency rail project might leave the mid-sized Ontario city as an afterthought.

Via Rail spokesman Philippe Cannon presented the HFR plans to council Tuesday (May 25) to move Via Rail from owning 3 per cent of its own lines to fully operating and owning the tracks it operates on. The project is years in the making.

But councillors are concerned the plan focuses too much on the Highway 417 corridor while just increasing scheduling along the Highway 401 corridor. The proposed change would see Kingston as a hub, meaning trains would start from there instead of Toronto to service Montreal, meaning people in Cornwall could catch a train earlier in the morning. But there would be no dedicated track, according to the plan drawings.

Cannon called it a “paradigm shift” from trains serving large centers to serving communities in between – but it’s years away.

Coun. Elaine MacDonald: “I thank you for coming to speak to us, when everything you have to say is absolutely impalatable (sic) to us.” Mayor Bernadette Clement strongly nodded in agreement. “This is about a matter that goes to our economic life blood…all those improvements are for others, they cut us out of the picture,” MacDonald said.

“Your message is absolutely unacceptable,” the veteran councillor added, suggesting the plans “cut out” Cornwall along the Highway 401 corridor in favour of servicing the Highway 417 corridor farther north. She questions why Via Rail, working on behalf of the federal government, couldn’t take less revenue and provide better service.

When asked by Coun. Syd Gardiner, Cannon emphasized there will no be reduction in service to Cornwall. “Chances are, it will not be cut back,” Cannon said, while acknowledging that the schedule is not done yet.

Coun. Justin Towndale says he noted the reduction in service during his 12 years commuting between Toronto and Cornwall. “The city may not be the same as large urban centers, but there is an increase.”

Mayor Bernadette Clement says the city is “extremely concerned” with train service – she had a meeting with MP Eric Duncan and MPP Jim McDonell about it last week, she said.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s been much investment at all in Cornwall,” Clement remarked.

At one point the discussion got heated between the mayor and Cannon.

Cannon shot back when the mayor suggested that the company was intent on making Cornwall “lonely, we’ll get back to you with the scheduling.” Cannon: “That’s not what I said. Please, honestly, in all due respect, don’t put words in my mouth that I didn’t use.”

Prior to the pandemic, Via Rail had about five million passengers in 2019. That was cut to around one million in 2020.

It’s hoped that having dedicated lines will lead to more growth as the passenger rail service won’t have to yield to “longer and longer” freight trains that cause scheduling delays.

The rail service says it had 56,000 passengers from Cornwall in 2019 – 4.4 per cent more than 2017.