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Storm turns Ottawa-Toronto Via Rail trip into a winter horror show


For passengers aboard a Toronto-bound Via Rail train Saturday, their journey was more like a Nightmare Before Christmas than the magic of Polar Express.

Already buffeted and delayed by the winter storm after leaving Ottawa at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Train 55 was brought to a halt on the tracks west of Cobourg Friday night when a falling tree shattered the window of the locomotive. What should have been a five-hour trip turned into a 24-hour ordeal, with no food, little water and putrid bathrooms.

(Later Saturday, Via would announce it was cancelling all trains between Toronto and Ottawa, and between Toronto and Montreal for Christmas Day.)

Among the passengers on Train 55 Friday were several diabetics and a mother nursing a newborn, which prompted some passengers to call 911 for help, said passenger Flower Lunn, who was travelling to Toronto for Christmas with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.

Some passengers were so frustrated Saturday morning that they jumped off the train and bolted, Lunn said.

“It got a little be desperate around 7 or 8 o’clock this morning,” she said. “There was a trio of passengers who went up to confront staff. The passengers were very articulate saying this was ‘not on’ and something had to happen and that’s when the staff told us they couldn’t get in touch with anyone either.”

Passengers asked about calling the police and paramedics for help.

“Staff said, ‘We can’t call 911, but for sure you guys can.”

At one point, Lunn and another passenger jumped off the train themselves and trudged to a nearby house.

“He and I went through the snow and knocked on a neighbour’s door to ask what the street address was and, if anyone needed to, could they come and take refuge in their house while they were waiting for paramedics,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said passengers had “self-organized” and done a survey to see who among them were most vulnerable.

“Other passengers had taken a collection to get whatever snacks people would be willing to share,” she said. “By the time police and firefighters arrived, things were pretty well under control.

“They were handing out water, but no one wanted to drink it because no one wanted to use the bathrooms!”

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The journey had been going quite normally up until Napanee. At that point the train had to begin slowing to a stop at every level crossing, likely because of the blowing snow and power outages. Lunn said the train was buffeted by the wind like an airplane during turbulence and she could see whiteout conditions from her window.

Although the train maintained power on board, so had light and heat, the fallen tree had given it an uncomfortable list to the side, making sleep difficult, Lunn said.

Stephanie Kalinowski’s parents were on board Train 55 and provided the Toronto woman updates on their ordeal via text. Her parents are both in their 80s and en route from their Ottawa home to spend Christmas with their daughter.

“We were watching their progress on Via’s train tracker and it was all going well until around Napanee when we could see it was slowing down and then came to a stop. Kalinowski watched the train creep into Cobourg, then it stopped completely just west of Cobourg at around 11 p.m.

Her parents texted that the tree had fallen and shattered one of the locomotive’s windows and Via had told them it wasn’t safe to continue.

At 12:50 a.m., her parents texted to say another train was on its way to pull the stranded Train 51, but as it neared a CN freight train was stopped on the track, preventing the Via train from getting into position for a tow. Meanwhile, a crew had come to clear the fallen tree but had to stop when they reached their allowable limit of hours worked.

Kalinowski’s parents texted that one woman had vomited on the floor and that the toilet in their car was plugged.

Finally, at around 11 a.m. Saturday, passengers were transferred onto a second rescue train that had been dispatched and resumed their journey.

By noon, the passengers were once again on their way to Toronto, more than 21 hours after leaving Ottawa.

Lunn said the Via crew seemed to be doing their best, but she’s not happy with the experience. She and other passengers say they expect compensation from Via.

“They were apologetic, but it seems like the crew was trying to figure it out themselves on the fly,” she said. “We want Via to step up. The same thing happened in May with the Derecho and trains were stopped so they should have some sort of protocol to follow, but it was pretty obvious there wasn’t.”

Train 55 finally pulled in to Toronto’s Union Station at around 4 p.m. Christmas Eve, more than 24 hours after it left Ottawa.

The havoc wasn’t confined to Train 55. Passengers on a eastbound train from Toronto reported waiting for some 14 hours on the track. While Via Rail’s train tracker show trains were still on time, the company acknowledged in a tweet Saturday afternoon at that it had to cancel “various trains” along the Windsor-Quebec City corridor and apologized for the inconvenience.

Source: Ottawa Citizen