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New Via Rail CEO vows to improve service, reduce dependence on taxpayer funds

MONTREAL - Improved service for consumers and reduced dependence on taxpayer dollars is the mantra at Via Rail, judging by its annual public meeting webcast where its new president was front-and-centre to hammer home its intentions.

Yves Desjardins-Siciliano took the Crown-owned passenger rail carrier's top job on May 11 after Foreign Minister John Baird publicly demanded the head of his predecessor.

Baird said he had lost confidence in Steve Del Bosco, who was president on an interim basis, because Via had fallen down when it came to communicating with the public, particularly on safety issues.

During Wednesday's webcast, Desjardins-Siciliano and other members of his team gave consumers a virtual hug as they stressed how the railway would reach out to meet travellers' needs.

And it was mentioned more than once that there would be no frittering away of taxpayer dollars. In fact, they promised to decrease their need for such funds — but didn't provide specific figures during their presentations.

According to Via's annual report, it received a total of $398.4 million from the government in 2013, the third consecutive year-year decrease since 2010. It was down from $446.3 million in 2012, $485.7 million in 2011 and $530.1 million in 2010.

Via's operating revenue was below the government revenue in each of the years and fell to $270.4 million in 2013 from $276.9 million in 2012 and $282.8 million in $2011, which was up from $274.4 million in 2010.

"In 2014, it is my hope that VIA Rail will continue to demonstrate how a Crown corporation can effectively and efficiently provide a valuable service to Canadians while minimizing its dependency on taxpayer dollars," said Paul Smith, Via's chairman.

Desjardins-Siciliano echoed the frugality with tax dollars as he stressed Via's commitment to consumers.

"Via Rail is a corporation that prides itself on the exceptional passenger rail service it offers to Canadians," Desjardins-Siciliano said. "Our customer service is ranked No. 1 in the transportation business."

Among the improvements he cited were the renovation of 18 LRC economy class cars and 13 business class cars to make them more comfortable and efficient as well as ongoing efforts to ease travel bookings.

Desjardins-Siciliano, who has served as Via's chief corporate and legal officer as well as its corporate secretary, also pointed to the carrier's new business class, which is aimed at boosting the client's productivity with such things as re-designed meals and getting the meal trays out of passengers' way quickly.

"This new offering is based on what our passengers want and what they asked for — more productivity and more personal time."

Safety is another component of Via's improvements going forward, he said. The number of incidents involving its trains has decreased steadily in the last five years, the president said.

There were 1.3 incidents per million passenger miles in 2013, compared to 3.6 in 2009, Desjardins-Siciliano reported.

"At Via Rail, safety and security is at the core of everything we do," he said.

"Above all else, it is our top priority. It is also a given for our customers. Customers should expect to board the train and to disembark in the same condition."

Safety had been key to Baird's earlier complaints when he knocked Via for the way it communicated with the public over issues like technical problems with safety equipment at rail crossings.

Baird, whose riding is in the national capital region, was incensed last month when Via wrongly accused Ottawa transit buses of causing a malfunction at a crossing near his home.

Desjardins-Siciliano said that during the next 100 days he wants to meet with as many Via employees as possible — he says he has already met 300 — and wants to talk to customers across the country.

He said that before the railway decides to increase or decrease the frequency of its trains, it will get the opinions of the communities they serve to gauge the market opportunity.

"For Via Rail to be successful in your community it needs your support and therefore authorities will have to put their money where their mouth is and co-operate in a way that we can bring the service that so many of you demand yet very few of you use."

Robert St-Jean, Via's chief financial officer, says operating expenses were up four per cent to $578 million in 2013, mainly due to increased costs related to the company's pension plan.

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