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Transport Canada reviewing studies on multibillion-dollar Via Rail expansion

The Via Rail station is seen in Halifax on June 13, 2013. Transport Canada is reviewing the results of five private studies as the federal government weighs whether to support Via Rail Canada Inc.’s multibillion-dollar expansion plans.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Transport Canada is reviewing the results of five private studies as the federal government weighs whether to support Via Rail Canada Inc.'s multibillion-dollar expansion plans.

The federal Crown corporation presented a business case for what it calls high-frequency rail to Transport Minister Marc Garneau in December that outlines a $4-billion plan to secure exclusive right-of-way for Via trains in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.

The project includes replacing Via's aging fleet of 160 cars and 40 locomotives.

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Read more: Ontario high-speed rail could be on track for 2025, adviser says

According to Via, the total price would rise to about $6-billion if the trains were powered by electricity rather than diesel.

The high price and the fact that Via president and chief executive Yves Desjardins-Siciliano has been courting pension funds as potential investors could make the project an early contender for funding through the new Canada Infrastructure Bank that Ottawa hopes to launch later this year.

However, many questions have yet to be answered about the project and Liberal ministers have been non-committal in their public comments.

The 2016 budget announced $3.3-million over three years to fund an in-depth assessment of having Via Rail offer high-frequency service within the full Windsor-to-Quebec City corridor.

Documents recently tabled in Parliament show $386,815 of that amount has been spent so far on five studies.

Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano recently stated that he was cautiously optimistic of a positive announcement from Ottawa in the coming months. He also suggested the project may be funded through the $35-billion Canada Infrastructure Bank.

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"We have high hopes for high-frequency rail," he said at the company's recent annual public meeting. "As the service is introduced, ridership will increase immediately – exponentially – because Canadians want to get out of their cars and choose a more economical, productive, efficient, environmentally friendly and safe mode of transport. So we have high hopes for the coming months."

Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano declined a request for an interview. Via estimates the project would reduce trip times by one-quarter and boost reliability by eliminating delays due to waiting for freight traffic, which has priority on existing lines.

High-frequency rail is not the same as high-speed rail, which the Ontario government is now considering for the Toronto-to-Windsor corridor. The province announced in May that it would spend $15-million on an environmental assessment of that proposal. It also released the results of a detailed study of the concept, led by former federal transport minister David Collenette.

Mr. Collenette's report looked at the possibility of full high-speed trains that could go up to 250 kilometres an hour or an even faster option that would travel up to 300 km/h. Mr. Collenette indicated a preference for the 250 km/h option as more cost efficient.

In contrast, Via Rail's proposal is based on traditional trains that can run up to 160 km/h.

Passenger-rail advocate Paul Langan, who heads a group called High Speed Rail Canada, criticized "high-frequency" rail as a term invented by Via to describe slow trains that will run more often.

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"They're going to have the same train speed that they had in 1976 after this is done. How can this be progressive?" he said in an interview. "It's pathetic."

Mr. Langan said the fact that Transport Canada and Via Rail will not release the five studies fits a pattern of secrecy surrounding the proposal.

The two largest of the five federally commissioned studies were led by Ottawa-based CPCS Transcom Limited, which has conducted similar studies of passenger-rail projects in Canada and internationally. One project was titled Cost-Benefit, Economic and Tourism Impact of VIA's High Frequency Rail Proposal. The second was called Alternative Strategies to add Passenger Rail Capacity to Quebec-Windsor Corridor.

Three smaller studies were led by a company called Research and Traffic Group and included an assessment of greenhouse gas emission reductions associated with the proposal. The report titles and their costs were provided in a written statement from Mr. Garneau, the federal Transport Minister, in response to a question from NDP MP Robert Aubin.

Mr. Aubin said he is a strong supporter of Via's plan and believes it is better than full high-speed rail because it will be less expensive and serve communities along the way, such as his constituency of Trois-Rivières.

A 2011 study by Transport Canada, Quebec and Ontario estimated that a full high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Windsor would cost between $19-billion and $21-billion. The Ontario government said this year that full high-speed rail from Toronto to London would cost $4-billion and a Toronto-to-Windsor line would cost $20-billion. The Ontario Liberals, who are trailing in public-opinion polls ahead of a scheduled 2018 election, have not committed to funding the high-speed rail project.

It is not clear how Via's proposal would be affected by Ontario's high-speed plans. Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano has promoted Via's growing partnerships with regional commuter rail lines that allow for a single ticket to be used on a connecting trip, such as Toronto's Union Pearson Express. Via's plan also faces some uncertainty in the east, where Quebec's public pension fund is leading a $5.5-billion light-rail project with federal and provincial funding. That plan could force Via passengers travelling from Montreal to Quebec City to first take the new light-rail line through the existing Mount Royal tunnel before transferring to a Via train, rather than beginning the trip at Montreal's Central Station.

In a recent interview, Mr. Collenette acknowledged he initially questioned why his assignment focused on high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor, rather than Toronto and Montreal, which is a project that has been studied and debated for decades.

Part of the answer is that his study was an Ontario government initiative. However, he also said that the area between Toronto and Montreal has become so built up that high-speed rail would be much more costly given that it requires full grade separation from intersecting roads.

"In terms of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, that's been the focus for a federal governments for quite a while," he said. "Because of the constraints of the right-of-way, it really needs a very expensive option of building a totally new right-of-way throughout large built up areas."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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