Napanee’s morning commuters ‘derailed’ by VIA

VIA 643 from Ottawa-Toronto rounding the bend at Montreal Street in Kingston. Photo by Logan Cadue/Kingstonist.

VIA Rail recently restored a morning commuter train between Ottawa and Toronto, but it’s not “All aboard!” for Lennox and Addington County.

When VIA triumphantly announced “the enhancement of services between Ottawa and Toronto” in a press release on Monday, Apr. 29, 2024, it spotlighted the new commuter Train 641, which will be added beginning Monday, May 27, 2024. This train will provide daily Monday to Thursday service, leaving Ottawa at 4:19 a.m. and arriving in Toronto at 8:48 a.m., with stops in Kingston, Belleville, Cobourg, and Port Hope on the way. However, Napanee, the only VIA Rail stop in the County of Lennox and Addington, was left off the schedule.

VIA Rail completely ceased its early morning commuter service along the eastern Ontario corridor during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Via Train 651 — a daily commuter train on the Kingston-Toronto corridor — was cancelled along with numerous other trains across Canada. However, at the end of June 2022, VIA resumed most of its service across the country, with one notable local exception: Train 651 did not come back online, leaving commuters hoping to reach Toronto by 9 a.m. effectively ‘derailed.’

Amid growing concern among residents in the region over this lack of resumption in service, a partnership of municipalities in eastern Ontario, including Kingston, Quinte West, Belleville, and the counties of Northumberland and Hastings, pressed VIA for action. The consortium of communities released “The Case for Getting VIA Train 651 Back on Track: Report on the critical importance of commuter train services for a growing Eastern Ontario” in September 2022, which detailed the critical importance of Eastern Ontario commuters having access to affordable and convenient transportation options, rather than having to choose between unemployment or a costly and time-consuming commute.

There was no indication at the time of why the County of Lennox and Addington did not participate in the study, but Marg Isbester, then Napanee mayor and past warden of Lennox and Addington County, said she was aware of the report and that she was thankful for the other municipalities taking this initiative.

Brandt Zätterberg, deputy CAO of the Town of Greater Napanee at that time, also agreed the report was important and noted, “Going forward, senior staff will be encouraging the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee to participate in this transportation initiative wherever possible.”

Answering a request for comment about why Train 641 does not include a Napanee stop, a spokesperson for VIA Rail explained, “When developing the 641 service, VIA Rail carefully balanced the need to accommodate as many passengers as possible and ensure they could reach Toronto by 9 a.m., all within the time constraints set by the host railway for track access. As a result, some stops served by the previous Train 651, including Napanee, could not be included on the 641 route.”

“However, to enhance service to Napanee, we have incorporated this stop into train 41’s schedule, which arrives in Toronto at 10:02 a.m. This adjustment aims to provide more options for our passengers while optimizing our limited equipment and track availability.”

VIA’s statement continued, “VIA Rail remains committed to always finding the balance between meeting our passengers’ travel needs and deploying our limited equipment and staff to provide service to the highest number of Canadians.”

For their part, the Town of Napanee provided the following statement:

“The Town is disappointed that the new Train 641 stops do not include Napanee. However, the business decision that VIA Rail made was theirs to make. Trains 643 and 55 do make stops in Napanee. If residents require travel earlier in the day to Toronto, we encourage them to consider Megabus that departs from Petro-Canada at 6:55 a.m.”

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