Two internal consultant reports warned the federal government that extending Via Rail’s proposed passenger rail line as far east as Quebec City would hurt the business case for the multibillion-dollar project.
Yet, when two senior ministers from Quebec – Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne – announced last month that Ottawa and the Canada Infrastructure Bank will spend $71-million on “preprocurement” work for the new line, they did so in Trois-Rivières, which would benefit from a segment planned for the north shore of the St. Lawrence River – the same stretch of line challenged by the government’s internal advisers.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through Access to Information requests also reveal officials were warned that Via’s plan for a new dedicated passenger rail line would mean reduced services for cities along the existing line, including Kingston and Belleville in Ontario and Saint-Hyacinthe and Drummondville in Quebec.
That private assessment contradicts the public assurances of Via Rail that its proposal would also benefit those communities. In response to questions about the documents, officials at Via and in federal ministers’ offices insisted to The Globe that service levels along the existing line would be maintained.
Known as high-frequency rail, or HFR, Via Rail’s project would see the construction of a new rail line from Toronto to Quebec City through Peterborough, Ottawa, Montreal and Trois-Rivières, running roughly parallel to, but well north of the existing line that Via shares with freight traffic.
Via’s pitch is that the status quo means its passenger trains face frequent delays and slower travel speeds because they are required to share the track with freight trains, which are given priority because most of the track is owned by CN, a freight railway.
With dedicated passenger tracks, Via says, its trains could operate at higher speeds and could more than double the number of daily departures in the corridor.
Transport Canada has been studying Via’s plan for several years, yet previous attempts by The Globe to obtain the findings of those studies through Access to Information or direct requests to ministers’ offices have been denied. However, The Globe obtained a summary of that work with an Access to Information request with the Finance Department in the form of a Jan. 11, 2019, briefing note to deputy minister Paul Rochon from assistant deputy minister Richard Botham.
The purpose of the note was to brief Mr. Rochon ahead of a meeting with other deputy ministers to discuss Via’s proposal.
The document notes that consulting firm WSP Canada was hired in 2017 by the Finance and Transport departments to conduct a due diligence review of the project.
“WSP found that: (redacted) … The project could reduce VIA’s reliance on government funding in the [Quebec City to Toronto] corridor, particularly if HFR is implemented only in [the] Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal portion,” it stated.
It then notes that Ottawa later hired EY, another consulting firm, to conduct a value-for-money analysis of the project and the options for structuring it, including potential private investors through the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
Under the heading “routing options,” the briefing note states: “Based on VIA’s most recent business case, the inclusion of the [Montreal-Quebec City] route reduces the profitability of the HFR. EY recommends that this portion be reviewed further given its high capital costs and poor performance on an operational basis.”
Later in the document, the Finance official contradicts Via’s public claims that the project will benefit cities along the existing route.
“More broadly, we also note that adding the HFR route will result in reduced services on the existing non-dedicated tracks, which will affect the service provided to several communities, such as Kingston and Belleville on the Toronto-Montreal route and Saint-Hyacinthe and Drummondville on the Montreal to Quebec City route,” it states.
Via has publicly stated that HFR would reduce trip times by as much as 25 per cent. However, specific trip times outlined in the documents show improvements vary considerably based on the segment.
In response to questions, Via provided its latest estimates of trip times. They vary from an improvement of just 6 per cent for trips between Montreal and Toronto – dropping to four hours and 45 minutes from five hours and four minutes – to a 35-per-cent reduction along the Montreal-to-Quebec City segment – to two hours and 10 minutes from three hours and 21 minutes.
Another revelation contained in the documents is a breakdown of the projected cost of the project. Via has previously said it would cost about $4-billion – $6-billion if it was built to allow trains to operate on electric power. The documents say Via’s latest estimates peg the cost at $4.4-billion: $2.1-billion for the Toronto-to-Ottawa route, $91.5-million for the Ottawa-to-Montreal route, $1.14-billion for the Montreal-to-Quebec City route and $1.1-billion for additional train sets.
Kingston city council unanimously approved a 2017 motion endorsing Via’s plan, and Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said at the time that he had been assured by Via officials that his city would become a key hub, with improved service for residents, even though it is not along the proposed new line.
Via Rail spokeswoman Marie-Anna Murat insisted the project would still lead to “improved service” for communities along the existing line.
Alexander Jagric, a spokesman for the Transport Minister, said recent due diligence has found the HFR project would generate wider economic benefits through the entire corridor, “including the Montreal-Quebec City portion.”