The backbone of VIA Rail Canada’s so-called “Corridor” fleet — which serves the highly populated Québec City to Windsor, Ontario, urban corridor — is being overhauled in one of the government-owned train company’s largest projects.
The $98.9 million contract awarded by the government of Canada to Moncton, New Brunswick’s Industrial Rail Services Inc. (IRSI) will see a variety of coach configurations gutted and re-built, including the installation of new wiring, upgraded technology, all new interior trim and seating — effectively creating new rail cars.
The coaches are known in Canada’s official bilingualism as LRCs — “Light, Rapid, Comfortable” in English and “Léger, Rapide, et Confortable” in French — manufactured and delivered to VIA by the manufacturer, Canadian-owned Bombardier Inc., between 1981 and 1984. There are no equivalent trains operating in the United States; although, the LRC was used as a basis for Amtrak’s Acela Express, and a couple of actual LRC train sets were used in an Amtrak pilot in the early 1980s.
The VIA LRC fleet, which is 98 cars (two of the original 100 cars were permanently damaged and scrapped after accidents), is being brought in stages for overhaul to the IRSI plant located in the former booming rail town of Moncton, which saw its local economy devastated with the closure of the former Canadian National Railway repair shops 30 years ago. The IRSI, owned by businessman Richard Carpenter, therefore represents something of a renaissance in rail maintenance for this eastern Canadian city.
The contract was announced in 2009 at the same time as a $5.8 million contract to IRSI for smaller upgrades to improve physical accessibility to 21 cars of VIA’s 106-car Renaissance fleet, which VIA acquired in 2000 from the United Kingdom and has been operating also on corridor services and on VIA’s overnight Montreal to Halifax route. The cars were originally built in the mid-1990s by Metropolitan-Cammell (later Alsthom) for the planned but later abandoned Nightstar Chunnel overnight service from England to the continent.
“For a long time, the feeling was that rail work was a day in the past history of Moncton and here we are back again,” Moncton Mayor George Leblanc said at the May 2009 IRSI contract announcement.
IRSI in fact has been in business since 1999 operating from the former CN diesel shop located in the CN Classification yard on the railway’s main line.
“When CN was trying to get rid of the property (Carpenter) saw it as a chance to buy a piece of real estate for next to nothing and then he was looking for what to do with this piece of real estate and finally realized that there might be a market for refurbishment of rail equipment,” Daniel Nobert, senior manager for VIA’s equipment program, said.
The VIA LRC and Renaissance contracts, as well as a smaller one for several VIA rail diesel cars (RDC), really lifted the company on to another level. It quickly launched a hiring spree to increase its workforce from 30 to 200.
The 125,000-square-foot plant now has grown to have 18 service bays, overhead cranes, drop tables, metal fabrication and paint shops. It offers everything from repairs-in-kind to full remanufacture for locomotives and passenger cars. Meanwhile, routine maintenance on VIA equipment is done at VIA’s longstanding maintenance shops in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
The LRCs make up 80 percent of the VIA Corridor rolling stock and have been used heavily on runs between Montreal-Ottawa, Montreal-Toronto, Ottawa-Toronto, Toronto-Windsor and Toronto-Sarnia. The equipment was introduced soon after VIA was created as a Crown or government-owned corporation — similar to Amtrak — to take over passenger service from the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways in the late 1970s.