Local riders of Via’s Train 651 dismayed as popular commuter line remains absent

A Via Rail train rolls through a snow storm towards the Napanee rail bridge to cross the Napanee River. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

Adam Prudhomme

Optimism was in the air for commuters across eastern Ontario last month when Via Rail announced it would be returning to service levels not seen since the pandemic.

Those good feelings were soon derailed however when it became apparent that the much discussed Train 651 was not included in the announcement. Instead the new lines focused on Toronto to Ottawa and London.

That was much to the frustration of riders from Kingston through Cobourg who relied on the weekday commuter train to deliver them to Toronto’s Union Station at 8:30 a.m. At its height, the train was carrying some 2,800 people who lived in communities like Greater Napanee to their downtown jobs in Toronto. The service was paused during the pandemic, which Via Rail attributed to a dip in ridership as more people were working from home. Though a lot of workers have since returned to in-person, the train service is still noticeably absent.

In September of 2022, Greater Napanee joined communities across eastern Ontario in submitting a letter to the president of Via Rail, calling for the return of Train 651 on behalf of the residents who relied on the service.

Terry Richardson was a member of council when Napanee made that motion and is looking to continue the push as mayor.

I went to looking to see if the line though Napanee, 651, was there, and it wasn’t,” Richardson said upon hearing the news of Via’s increased services. “Obviously it’s important to us and we’re willing to work we those neighbouring municipalities to try and shake things up and see if we can get things going. It’s important. We think about people coming from Napanee and getting to places along that line, but with the exponential growth that I think we’re going to experience here, with the industrial growth, residential growth and even commercial growth, I think part in partial with the Umicore project in Loyalist, we’re not only going to have people from here going to other places, but we’re going to have people wanting to come here on that commuter train.”


Greater Napanee’s VIA Rail train station. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.


When reached for comment, Via offered the following statement.

After careful and continued evaluation of the evolution of the new work from home reality and current business travel habits, and faced with labour and equipment shortages,VIA Rail is unable to resume its full pre-pandemic schedule in the Québec City – Windsor corridor for the time being, which impacts several trains, including 650/651,” reads the statement.We understand that this can be disappointing for some communities, but like other businesses in the transportation industry, we are working to find the balance between meeting our passengers’ evolving travel needs and deploying our limited equipment and staff to provide service to the highest number of Canadians. With the ongoing progressive introduction of VIA Rail’s 32 new trainsets, along with sustained recruitment and training efforts, VIA Rail is rebuilding its car inventory and workforce, which should allow the Corporation to reintroduce some suspended frequencies when the conditions allow.”
According to the CBC, Via Rail reported operating loses of $120 million last quarter and hasn’t turned a profit since 2017.

Richardson said Napanee on its own may not be able to make much headway, but in partnering with communities along the rail line, they may be able to keep pushing the matter.
“I realize that Via is a business and they have business plans I’m sure to try and establish what’s the best way to make money and survive, but it’s a little bit concerning in the fact that we’ve got a line that I think would be very well used and it doesn’t exist,” said Richardson.
Some residents have turned to federal and provincial politicians, hoping they can get some answers from Via as it is a Crown corporation. So far however, they’re yet to gain any answers of substance.

In the mean time, commuters are left with little choice if their job requires them to be in Toronto on a regular basis. For some, the idea of living in a quiet community like Napanee while still being employed in Toronto was dependent on a reliable train service that allowed them to maintain 9-5 work hours. Instead they’re now driving up to four hours round trip, sometimes paying out of pocket for a hotel room. With winter quickly approaching, the though of commuting on the 401 daily is a real concern for a lot of people.
They can only hope to keep the pressure on Via and hope for a return of Train 651 in the very near future.

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