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VIA Rail has its sights set high!

28 June 2017 by National Bank
Interview with VIA Rail's CEO

An interview with its CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, who has worked toward transforming the carrier’s business culture since his arrival in May 2014, with impressive results. And he doesn’t intend to stop anytime soon!

Martin Lavigne (ML): Pardon the pun but VIA Rail is currently on the right track!

Indeed, since 2014, our revenues and ridership have increased. This is the first time in the company’s history that it has enjoyed such an extended period of growth.

Éric Bujold (ÉB): What is the secret behind this success?

In recent years, we have worked hard on our business culture. We want to give meaning to the work of our employees, but also to make the customer’s well-being a priority.

The positive impact of this approach is not only apparent in our sales results, but also in our internal results. In two years, employee engagement has increased by 11%. Employees have really been getting involved. When I speak to passengers, they all point out the quality of the service aboard, on the telephone or at the station. This explains why customers forgive our lack of punctuality and outdated equipment, two factors that are beyond our control.

Moreover, the Canadian population is ageing and people prefer to be passengers. The younger population is also helping us. On one hand, those under the age of 25 are very environmentally aware. On the other hand, their idea of freedom is staying connected to their friends, something which is incompatible with driving a car.

(ML) You stated: “We will make VIA Rail a marketing leader.” What exactly did you mean?

To convince Canadians to take the train, we need to speak to both their minds and their hearts. We are a carrier, but first and foremost, we are a marketing business. Because we need to make sure Canadians are aware of our existence — many people do not know VIA Rail — and of our relevance. I am confident because we are currently developing the know-how to achieve this. And though our engine may sputter along the way, as long as we learn from these experiences, we will succeed.

(ML) Rather than talk about “high-speed trains” (TGV), you are now proposing “high frequency trains” (TGF). What is the difference between the two?

Low frequency is the main reason why people aren’t taking the train. It’s all about frequency. We can think about increasing speeds later.

(EB) To increase frequency, you need to own your tracks. That’s correct. Starting with separating freight rail infrastructure from passenger rail infrastructure, because they’re designed for different needs. Freight infrastructure must have a higher load capacity, and because trains travel at low speeds, they can take sharper curves. Passenger infrastructure must be designed to travel at faster speeds, and more comfortably. However, these are needs that are hard to reconcile.

Therefore, our project is to build a railway made for the current top speed of passenger trains, that is, almost 180 km/h. Presently, our trains travel at an average speed of 100 km/h because we’re on a freight railway.

On a railway designed for passenger trains, we will be able to travel at top speed and increase frequency. This would enable us to remove the first obstacle of trains, in addition to nearly doubling the speed.

(EB) We can sense your passion! How does this translate into your management style?

I am passionate about leading VIA Rail because I am surrounded by people who are smart and ambitious! Truth be told: I am very enthusiastic. I try to instill my strength, sense of wonder and appreciation for life into the company. I do think I communicate this state of mind to employees. I feel that my main task, as CEO, is to give meaning to the lives of people who’ve entrusted us with their careers. (EB) You are the CEO of a company with a single shareholder: the government. Does it take a special talent to run a company like this one? I’ve always worked in business environments, and all companies have a social responsibility. Here, although the company has business and social goals, it also exists for public policy purposes: intercity transportation, accessibility for persons with reduced mobility, linkage between urban centres and rural areas, bilingualism, environmental protection, and many others. The challenge is to reconcile all of this, and this is what stimulates me.

(ML) This year Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary. What role does VIA Rail intend to play in these celebrations?

We are supporting events honoring the 150th by offering free train tickets to transport artists, participants or the general public to these events. We’ve also launched the Pan Canadian Service, which enables Canadians to combine some of our services to discover Canada throughout 2017. Lastly, you’ll see some VIA Rail train cars and locomotives displaying the colors of the 150th passing through the Canadian landscape. Our stations will also be decorated with the 150th anniversary’s visual elements.

(EB) After completion of your term, in 2019, what accomplishments will you be most proud of?

There are two. The first is measurable. When I started off as CEO, 33% of employees were disengaged. When I leave, my aim is that it be less than 10%.

The second is the memory of those I’ve worked with here. Looking back at my 35-year career, what stands out most in my mind are the women and men I have worked with and who have continued to grow, and the feeling of having been a witness to this or even sometimes having contributed to it.

It is as part of a series of interviews exploring the success of local business executives that Martin Lavigne, President of National Bank Financial Wealth Management and Éric Bujold, President of National Bank Private Wealth Management, 1859, had the chance to meet Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, CEO of VIA Rail.

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