Canadian passenger rail, some transit service impacted by pipeline demonstrations

Feb. 17, 2020
The country’s freight rail network is snarled, and transit systems are feeling the impacts as demonstrators protest a proposed pipeline project.

Rail passengers across Canada are being impacted by reduced or canceled service as the result of blockades erected by demonstrations protesting TransCanada’s proposed Coastal GasLink fracking pipeline. 

Canadian National, which owns most of the infrastructure VIA Rail uses to provide passenger rail service, began an ordered shutdown of its eastern Canada network Feb. 13 as a result of the blockades.

“With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protestors,” said JJ Ruest, president and chief executive officer at CN. “This situation is regrettable for its impact on the economy and on our railroaders as these protests are unrelated to CN's activities, and beyond our control. Our shutdown will be progressive and methodical to ensure that we are well set up for recovery, which will come when the illegal blockades end completely.”

Ruest noted that while VIA Rail service would be discontinued, but Metrolinx and Exo service would be allowed to continue operations as long as safety was not compromised.

VIA Rail issued a statement that read in part, “Following a notice from the infrastructure owner, CN Rail, that they are no longer in a position to fulfill their obligations under the Train Service Agreement between VIA Rail and CN Rail, VIA Rail has no other option but to cancel all of its services on the network with the exception of Sudbury-White River (CP Rail) and Churchill-The Pas (Hudson Bay Railway), until further notice… We understand the impact this unfortunate situation has on our passengers and regret the significant inconvenience this is causing to their travel plans.”

GO Transit’s twitter feed on Feb. 14 reported a portion of the Barrie Line was shut down due to people on or near the tracks.

In Montreal, exo4 Candiac train service was halted Feb. 13 following demonstrators on tracks owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. Exo began a shuttle service using approximately 30 buses to transport riders from Candiac, Delson, Saint-Constant and Sainte-Catherine stations to the Mansfield Terminus. But Exo warned riders that a shortage of drivers and buses might require the service provider to utilize school buses and reduce shuttle service.

In the western part of Canada, blockades caused TransLink to cancel Feb. 14 morning service on its West Coast Express line, but service was restored for the evening commute.

The country’s Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has been in talks with the demonstrators to bring an end to the situation, but beyond reports the “moderate progress” has been made, details remain scarce about how the demonstrations would conclude.

Canada Minister of Transport Marc Garneau issued a statement recognizing the importance of freedom of expression, but asked protestors to “respect the court decisions and the law.”

“I am fully aware and deeply concerned by the impact of the decision CN was forced to take and its consequent effect on Via Rail. A safe and efficient passenger and freight rail service is critical to the well-being of our country. I am in constant communication with CN and CP,” said Minister Garneau. ““We are encouraged by the progress on the blockade in New Hazelton, B.C. This is a positive development and we are actively working for a similar resolution on all remaining blockades. All parties must engage in open and respectful dialogue to ensure this situation is resolved peacefully. We strongly urge these parties to do so.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.