TORONTO — With a network that serves over 400 communities from coast to coast, there’s no question that VIA Rail’s reach in Canada is vast and extensive. So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the iconic rail company to suspend several of its routes, that same reach immediately diminished, forcing VIA – along with all travel-related businesses – to shift its focus and adapt. But how?
In an exclusive interview with Travelweek, VIA Rail’s Tracey Nurmi, Senior Manager, Domestic & International Sales, talks about the pandemic’s immediate impact on operations, how the company is accommodating passengers today, and what its short- and long-term forecasts are in the wake of COVID-19.
“During these difficult times, we are not operating at full capacity and some routes have been completely suspended, but we hope to be back on track soon!” she says. “We’ve received a lot of positive feedback and increased interest in product training from our travel agency partners – they’ve been so supportive.”
Here is Travelweek’s full interview below:
Travelweek: What was the immediate impact COVID-19 had on operations? And what routes/services are operational today?
Nurmi: VIA had record ridership in 2019 and started 2020 with a very positive January. Blockades challenged our operations in February and just as that situation was being resolved we were impacted by Covid. We suspended the Canadian and Ocean operations, our long distance Eastern and Western routes immediately as a preventive measure and both routes are set to resume Nov. 1, 2020.
Trains in the Windor-Quebec City corridor are operating at reduced capacity. Our current schedule can be found here and will be updated accordingly.
TW: What has been the biggest challenge during this pandemic?
Nurmi: Information management. With endless sources, conflicting messaging and a crisis that’s constantly changing, ensuring we continue to follow the recommendations of public health authorities, communicate with governments and adhere to Transport Canada guidelines can be challenging. We want to provide our customers and employees with the latest information, especially as it relates to health and safety.
TW: How is VIA accommodating passengers at this time?
Nurmi: The key word here is flexibility! VIA understands that travel plans can change, especially considering the exceptional context created by the spread of COVID-19. With flexible booking, you can cancel a reservation at any time prior to departure. A full refund will be issued, and zero service charges incurred, regardless of when you purchased the ticket. At the moment, our cancellation policy includes all travel through November 1, 2020, as well as any travel after Nov. 1, 2020, if the outbound train is on or before November 1, 2020. Of course, this is all subject to change depending on how the situation evolves. You can look at our refund policy for full details.
TW: As travel slowly resumes, what changes has VIA implemented onboard trains to help ensure health and safety?
Nurmi: VIA priority has always been to keep our passengers and staff safe. For one, wearing a mask while in our stations and on the train is mandatory. If a passenger is not carrying a mask, we will provide them with one. Our employees will conduct a health check before passengers are permitted to board our trains. This will involve asking simple health questions and looking for visible signs of illness prior to boarding. Our trains are also disinfected before and after each trip and we limit the on-board capacity to ensure physical distancing. We even have additional onboard employees to sanitize our trains while in operation Our food service has been temporarily suspended in order to avoid contact as much as possible. Passengers are offered a water and snack for their trip. We have dedicated a full webpage to the different measures we have implemented for anyone that would like more information.
TW: Industry experts anticipate an increase in domestic travel within Canada as a result of the pandemic. Would you agree?
Nurmi: Our recent survey results indicate that interest in train travel remains high. Leisure travel has gradually started to improve, and over the past few weeks we have begun to add additional departures to some of our markets. We expect an increase in demand for both business and leisure travel heading into September.
TW: How are the summer/fall seasons looking in terms of bookings? Are Canadians booking rail travel?
Nurmi: Over the past few weeks, we have begun to add a few additional departures to some of our markets as demand rises. In the summertime we typically see more leisure travel than business travel, and it is the case this year as well. Business travel will increase in the Fall as consumer confidence improves and corporate travel policies allow.
TW: What is your year-end forecast? When do you anticipate VIA to fully recover?
Nurmi: Unfortunately, this pandemic continues to negatively affect the travel industry on a global scale. Although we have recently experienced a modest increase in ridership with the addition of departures in some of our markets, we don’t anticipate ridership to be back to pre-COVID-19 levels in the foreseeable future. VIA Rail will continue to work on progressing its service resumption plan and increase our operations incrementally as consumer demand increases.
Travel agents can learn about VIA Rail’s network and services by taking the VIA Rail course in Travelweek’s Learning Centre. To register go to https://www.travelweeklearningcentre.com/via-rail-specialist-program/.