OPINION: ‘Unlimited’ VIA Rail promotion a face-palm disappointment to youth

by | Apr 7, 2017 | Opinion

By: Javon Walker

There are few things more aggravating than seeing a company completely botch a great idea.

I’m not sure if the planning committees behind some of these PR stunts only think of the best case scenarios, but sometimes I’m just left face-palming at how unprepared companies are when everything backfires.

That Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial is a great example, but I’m not talking about that.

About a week ago, Via Rail started offering Canada 150 Youth passes, for young people aged 12 to 25. Tied to the celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial – the 150 years since Confederation in 1867 —  the pass gives the card holder unlimited travel across Canada on any Via Rail routes for the month of July, at the low cost of $150.

Just for context, the lowest regular price for a youth travelling from Union Station in downtown Toronto to Ottawa is $93, before taxes.

I don’t know if Vial Rail thought nobody would care about a historically expensive service suddenly becoming dirt cheap, but they were not prepared for the attention. Once the deal started getting shared across Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, the Via website quickly crashed from so many people trying to get a pass.

Anecdotal stories online had Via Rail customer service reps telling callers there was no limit to the passes being sold, and to remain patient. Some people were on their computers and phones for hours trying to get a pass.

Just 36 hours after the deal went online, Via Rail announced they had sold all 1,867 of their passes, a number they had never mentioned before. They eventually increased the amount to 4,000, but that too was quickly gone.

This should be something to celebrate, right? Unlimited travel across Canada being available to 4,000 young is great news. However, Via Rail upset far more people than they pleased.

For one, the older, life-long users of Via Rail felt neglected because they aren’t being given similar deals. Then, there are the people who actually tried to get the pass and still failed, because of the website crash and lagging.

Poor communication sure didn’t help, either. I truly believe Via Rail came up with the 1,867 cap after they realized the demand for their service was much higher than expected, and choosing the year Canada became a dominion would make it seem like they planned it all along to be this way. This clearly wasn’t the case, because they then sold another 2,124 passes.

Last, but not least, the inevitable outrage of the people who actually bought the pass is bound to hurt them in two months’ time. While the pass was advertised as giving unlimited travel, in reality it only gives access to economy seats that need to be booked using the Escape fare category.

These spots are subject to seat availability and carry other restrictions.

Imagine having all these grand plans to be all over the country, only to find that you were only able to use your pass a handful of times, if that. And that doesn’t even cover expenses like food, lodging and all that good stuff.

Ultimately, Via Rail Canada didn’t think the demand for its services were that high. It turns out they don’t even believe in their own product. That’s probably what makes me face-palm myself the hardest about all of this.