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Via Rail says its passenger trains are past their prime, calls on Ottawa to replace the fleet

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Via Rail says its long-distance trains are now well past their prime and is waiting for funding from Ottawa to replace the fleet.

But it warns the process has to start this year, otherwise service could end up being reduced.

When Via Rail's long-distance trains need major repairs, they're taken off the tracks and are serviced here at Via's maintenance centre in Montreal.

The Crown corporation says replacing this fleet is urgently needed. The trains are regularly inspected but it takes a specialized crew to keep them running smoothly.

"A major problem or a technical problem that can't be solved on a daily basis, these cars are brought back here in the shop to repair and go back on service," explained Andre Bouchard, vice-president of mechanical services.

Jamie Orchard, senior advisor of public affairs, said the overnight passenger trains — ones that run between Montreal and Halifax, as well as between Toronto and Vancouver — serve Indigenous communities.

"These trains are their lifeline. Some of the communities, for example, Churchill, Manitoba, they have no road that gets there, so they get their groceries on these trains," she said.

Orchard said the trains are so old that most have travelled the equivalent of 10 roundtrips between Earth and the moon.

"They're ready to retire. They're more than 70 years old in some cases and on average, trains run for about 25 years," she said.

In the last few years, 25 out of 200 trains were taken out of service. Many parts are no longer sold and have to be made from scratch.

"We extend at least three times — mostly three times — the expected life of this type of equipment," says Bouchard.

Via says talks with Transport Canada are going well but it's still waiting for the green light from Ottawa to start the procurement process.

In a written statement on Thursday, the federal transport agency said, "The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of passenger rail service beyond the Québec City – Windsor Corridor and will continue to work to ensure its sustainability."

It will likely cost several billion dollars and Via says the process needs to start this year. The trains won't last past 2035.

"We know that if we don't start in 2024," Orchard said, "that gradual decline in service will begin."

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