Uncertain Future: Will Privatization Derail the Dreams of Young Workers at VIA Rail?

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|January 19, 2024

Smiling man standing in front of a VIA train.

Welcome to VIA Vignettes, where the heartbeat of Canadian rail travel is shared through the eyes of those dedicated to bringing you home. In this series, we explore the personal journeys of VIA Rail's employees, those who ensure your travel is more than a mere transfer from point A to B but a passage woven into the fabric of Canadian life. 

A man looking out the window of a moving train.

Meet Nelson Mahmoudi: his early fascination with trains has blossomed into a career with VIA Rail in Ottawa, where he proudly serves as a Senior Service Attendant and active member of Unifor National Council 4000.

His journey from childhood dreams to facing the realities of Canada’s beloved passenger rail industry, now under the cloud of possible privatization, encapsulates the spirit and dedication of Unifor members working at VIA rail. 

Riding the rails since childhood, my commutes from Toronto to Ottawa were more than just trips; they were the birthplace of my dreams. 

The journey was always the same—my father would see us off, and as the landscapes blurred by, I'd lose myself in music while my mother knitted beside me.

At least once a trip, my mom would point to me and say ‘Nelson! Wouldn’t that be such a cool job?’, pointing towards the attendant walking down the aisle with their cart. The idea of travelling across the country, working on the train and for a company – VIA Rail – that we loved so much did sound cool! But I was six, so nothing was really actionable at that point.

Flash forward 16 years and a freshly-graduated Nelson was on his way to Toronto for the first week of training with his new job: Senior Service Attendant for VIA in the Corridor! As a public transit nerd who loved trains, this opportunity was exactly what I needed and checked so many boxes for me. 

This job was a perfect match for a train enthusiast like me—good pay, dynamic workdays, and the pride of contributing to the federal government's mission. Every day was a new voyage.

VIA Rail, once the emblem of Canadian passenger travel, has been grappling with underfunding and outdated infrastructure for decades. service cuts, fare hikes and aging equipment are all making this company a shell of what it used to be 20 years prior. 

And while yes, the new fleet and High-Frequency Rail (HFR) programs represent renewed investment in the Corporation by the Federal Government, these are both lions in sheep’s clothing. 

Although the new Siemens Charger/Venture trains are sleek, modern, and stylish, they represent a turn by the company to be more like the airlines with their limited baggage space, additional fees, and premiums galore. On the other hand, HFR will bring more reliable service, but at a cost of privatizing VIA – something which many Canadians are unaware of seeing how slyly the Government snuck it into their proposal. All the while, Canada remains the only G7 country without proper High-Speed Rail.

And for now, the corporation, its passengers, and its employees are all along for the ride. The future of this storied company is uncertain, but one thing is clear: the VIA Rail I knew and loved as a child is at a junction, and its path forward will shape our national identity for years to come.

Unifor’s Get Canada Back on Track campaign is resolved to fight the Government’s privatization plan for VIA Rail and to expand publicly-owned passenger rail in Canada.

VIA Rail must remain a public service that benefits passengers – not shareholders. 

Our Campaign advocates for the federal government to strengthen the national passenger rail service in order to better provide safe, reliable and frequent transportation – right across the country – and support the creation of good, green, public and long-term jobs. 

Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing 315,000 workers in every major area of the economy. The union advocates for all working people and their rights, fights for equality and social justice in Canada and abroad, and strives to create progressive change for a better future.

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Unifor is a Canadian union with a modern, inclusive approach to serving members and improving our workplaces and communities.