I hate the class distinctions of the redesigned VIA Rail. Maybe the distinctions were there before, but they weren’t as in-your-face. They are definitely in-your-face now.

Case in point: I went up the escalator to the train platform to board the train from Toronto to Winnipeg. After walking past a few cars, I asked an attendant which car I should board. He asked to see my ticket, peered at it, and then said dismissively: “Oh, you’re just in economy. That’s way at the end.”

Yes, I’m “just in economy”, and I’ve been made to feel my low status in the eyes of VIA Rail ever since I started my trip. Silly me – I thought I was just buying a train ticket and going on a series of train trips, but what I’ve since discovered is that there’s no longer such a thing as just buying a train ticket on VIA Rail: You buy class distinction, and you’re treated accordingly.

The trip from Toronto to Winnipeg on coach class was a nightmare. VIA has a promotion this summer that kids aged 2-11 can travel for $15 in coach class anywhere in Canada, so of course coach class was crammed with kids and their parents, but mostly just kids doing what kids do best – running up and down the aisles, screaming and fighting, clogging the toilets with paper towels, and generally turning what could have been a quiet trip into a patience endurance marathon. The parents let their kids run wild, and the attendants didn’t seem to care, even when the kids (and some of the parents) hunkered down in the aisles to sleep.

I can’t imagine the same happening in the “sleeper plus” or “prestige” classes beyond the barricaded door that was off-limits to us peons in economy.

By the final six hours of the trip, only one of the washrooms in coach class was still functioning – one washroom for over 100 people. That’s apparently an acceptable ratio to VIA, since no-one made any effort to put the washrooms back in service as, one after the other, they become fouled beyond use. As one patron tearfully described it to a stony-faced attendant just before getting off the train at Winnipeg, “it’s like a crack house in there.”

Here’s the problem: The class system has become so deeply entrenched in the mindset of VIA employees that coach class patrons are no longer seen as being worthy of what used to be standard courteous customer service. Since starting my trip a few weeks ago, I’ve been pushed into trains, barked at for taking too long to board or deboard, and by turns studiously ignored, curtly responded to, or treated outright rudely. I’ve also had my luggage dolly damaged and at one point even dropped onto the tracks under the train by an attendant who grabbed it from me without first asking if I wanted any help. That has been the sub-theme of my trip so far – being forcefully and unceremoniously “helped” without first being asked if I even wanted any help, only to have that “help” be to my detriment. In coach class, it’s all about what’s expedient for VIA, not what’s expedient for the patrons. It got so bad that I even chose to take the local commuter train from Oakville to Toronto (paid trip) rather than taking VIA (free trip) because I knew that if I took VIA, my heavy piece of luggage and the dolly that I use to haul it would be man-handled again and likely even more damaged.

On top of it all, the rudeness is nearly intolerable. Most of the attendants are what I would call “young” (in their 20s and 30s) and either badly trained, not suited for customer service, or not suited for customer service in coach class. Maybe those with customer service skills have been promoted to sleeper and prestige class duty, while the rest are left to slum it in coach and resent it. As I said in an earlier blog, I’m not against people getting better service if they pay for it. That’s not the issue here. What I’m against is people paying for a train trip only to receive service that is substandard.

Another case in point: We arrive in Winnipeg from Toronto. No announcement about crossing the provincial border; no announcement about time change; no apology or explanation for being two hours late. Just the usual pre-scripted “Thanks for choosing VIA Rail blah blah blah.” It’s bad enough that there’s a communication black hole, Internet and cell phone-wise, from Toronto to Winnipeg, without making matters worse by keeping customers completely in the dark about travel necessities like time of day and arrival delays.

I don’t think I’m asking for or expecting anything special – just a friendly face, an attentive demeanor that’s ready to help only when asked, updated announcements on delays and stoppages, bathrooms that are at least usable and functioning, garbage removal from the seats a few times a day – you know, standard stuff that used to be standard but alas is no more. Not on VIA Rail coach class, anyway.

I don’t want to think this (let alone say it), but I’m starting to “intensely dislike” travelling coach class on VIA Rail. I just wanted a train trip, not a constant reminder of my lowly economic status and unworthiness of anything beyond the curtest of curt communications and the basest of amenities.

If VIA is losing customers, it’s not because people don’t want to travel by train; it’s because of the poor service they get when they do. VIA is mandated by the Canadian government to provide passenger rail service in Canada. That’s why it gets subsidies. Has “passenger rail service” been redefined as “prestige service to well-luggaged patrons”? If so, we in the cheap seats need to know now, so that next time we can find some other “via” to get around.

Best to BYOT (Bring Your Own Toilet) to Via Rail Coach Class.jpg

Taking a trip on VIA Rail coach class? Come prepared  –  BYOT (Bring Your Own Toilet).