Report touts benefits of moving VIA Rail route through Saskatchewan

Submitted photo.

Bryn Levy, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Saskatoon city staff are advising city council that there’s merit in supporting a group of Saskatchewan mayors in an effort to have VIA Rail switch its passenger rail service to a different line.

Council in December directed the city administration to consult with the Discover Saskatoon destination marketing bureau and the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Agency (SREDA) on a proposal put forward in a presentation by Lloydminster Mayor Gerald Aalbers, who was joined at the time by the mayors of Warman, Yorkton and North Battleford.

The group of mayors wants VIA to reroute passenger service from the CN Rail main line running through Saskatoon to a secondary route known as the Prairie North line.

The proposed route would divert from the CN main line at Melville, then run through Yorkton to Canora and continue through Humboldt, Warman, the Battlefords and Lloydminster and on through Alberta, stopping in Vermilion and Vegreville before reconnecting with the CN main line in Edmonton.

Aalbers and the other mayors said in their presentation that the new route would mean VIA passenger trains would spend less time parked on sidings waiting for freight traffic to pass, while providing a boost to the regional tourism economy.

The group of mayors told council they’ve had a hard time getting officials from VIA and the federal transportation department to engage with them on the proposal; they requested a letter of support from Saskatoon in hopes that having a larger city on board might help the idea gain some traction.

If VIA were to adopt the proposed new route, Saskatoon would no longer have a VIA station within the city limits; Warman would serve as the nearest stop. Warman Mayor Gary Philipchuk has previously said his city could explore infrastructure improvements to support a VIA passenger stop, should the idea progress.

The report from Saskatoon city staff will be reviewed Wednesday at a meeting of council’s governance and priorities committee.

The current VIA station serving Saskatoon is located in the city’s southwest, near the CN Rail yards. The report to council notes that with annual passenger traffic of around 200 people, the current station “falls short of providing a welcoming experience.”

A new station in Warman, integrated with transportation options to get people into Saskatoon and the surrounding region, “could revolutionize the visitor experience,” according to the report, which further notes that staff at Discover Saskatoon have identified an opportunity to work with VIA and Indigenous Tourism Canada on promoting rail tourism in international markets.

While the potential benefits are attractive, the report notes that it will require significant collaboration with Warman, and ongoing work with VIA, which must complete an assessment of the proposed line’s viability for passenger trains and consider the impact on the existing VIA schedule, which is built around maximizing daylight travel through the Rocky Mountains.