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Alstom SA, which bought Montreal-based Bombardier’s rail unit in 2021, is urging Ottawa to opt for a French-style TGV (train à grande vitesse) in Canada’s busiest transporation corridor to reduce car traffic and carbon emissions.Claude Paris/The Associated Press

French transportation giant Alstom SA is pushing Ottawa to go all-in on high-speed rail service between Quebec City and Toronto rather than settling for a cheaper but slower alternative that would attract too few new passengers to make much of a difference.

Alstom, which bought Montreal-based Bombardier’s rail unit in 2021, is urging Ottawa to opt for a French-style TGV (train à grande vitesse) in Canada’s busiest transportation corridor to reduce car traffic and carbon emissions. Though previous attempts to bring a TGV to Canada have failed, in part because of opposition from the country’s airlines, Alstom insists the case for high-speed rail will only get stronger in the face of population growth, road and airport congestion and climate change.

“In recent months, we’ve seen more openness [in Ottawa] to our arguments,” Michael Keroullé, Alstom’s regional president for the Americas, based in St-Bruno, Que., said in an interview. High-speed rail “is the right economic choice because it leads to more displacement of cars.”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra recently expanded the parameters of the federal government’s High Frequency Rail, or HFR, initiative after Alstom and other potential private-sector partners asked Ottawa to aim higher. The government is now willing to consider proposals for a “higher-speed” rail service that could reach velocities of up to 300 kilometres an hour in parts of the Quebec-City-Toronto corridor, in addition to offering more frequent departures and better on-time performance.

In December, Mr. Alghabra created a new Via subsidiary, Via HFR, with a mandate to launch a formal request for proposals this year. The new unit’s three-person board of directors, led by chairman Robert Prichard, is recruiting additional directors and a chief executive officer to oversee the RFP process.

Partners “will have the flexibility to consider the cost-benefit trade-offs of alternatives for meeting or exceeding the project outcomes,” Nadine Ramadan, a spokesperson for Mr. Alghabra, said in an e-mail. “This would include opportunities to increase speeds beyond 200 km/h on certain segments of the High Frequency Rail project, if it is cost effective to do so.”

A TGV could cut in half the travel time between Montreal and Toronto compared with the nearly five hours it now takes on Via Rail’s trains, which share tracks with the freight operations of Canadian National Railway. The HFR project would entail the construction of dedicated tracks, improving on-time performance. But its trains would reach average speeds of around 200 km/h, shaving only about 30 minutes off the length of a Montreal-Toronto trip.

The 32 bimode train sets that Via has ordered for almost $1-billion from Alstom rival Siemens will be configured to operate with diesel locomotives on existing tracks or on dedicated electrified tracks under a HFR project. But an all-electric TGV project would require different train sets altogether.

In 2021, Mr. Alghabra pegged the cost of the HFR project then on the table at between $6-billion and $12-billion – a lowball estimate even then. Cost estimates for a TGV could be several times higher, though most of the funding would likely come from private partners that would own and operate the project under a long-term lease from Ottawa.

California’s troubled high-speed rail project, which was launched in 2008 and remains years from completion, has raised concerns about a similar project here spinning out of control. The California High-Speed Rail Authority last year raised its estimate for the total cost of the project to US$113-billion. Mr. Keroullé dismissed the California plan as the “worst possible high-speed rail example” given the circuitous route through the Central Valley chosen to link San Francisco and Los Angeles and the state’s seismic faults, factors that have led to ballooning costs.

A better comparison is Amtrak’s Acela high-speed rail service between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., for which Alstom is supplying 28 of its Avelia Liberty TGV trains. The trains can reach 300 km/h, but track limitations in the Acela corridor mean their maximum speed will be about 257 km/h. Via’s trains have a top speed of 160 km/h.

Under Buy America rules, Alstom must assemble the Acela train sets in the United States, where the French company has a plant in Hornell, N.Y. The Canadian plants that Alstom acquired in purchasing Bombardier Transportation – located in La Pocatière, Que., Kingston and Thunder Bay – do not currently assemble high-speed trains. Alstom’s latest generation TGV M trains are built at its century-old plant in Aytré, France.

Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec became Alstom’s largest shareholder, with a 17.5-per-cent stake, by converting its investment in Bombardier Transportation into shares in the French company, now the world’s second-largest train manufacturer after China’s CRRC. The Caisse is seen as a potential partner in a high-speed rail project in the Quebec City-Toronto corridor, based on an owner-operator model similar to that of the Réseau Express Métropolitain light-rail transit project the pension fund manager is now building in Montreal.

All that’s needed now is for Ottawa to get on board.

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