The head of Via Rail says the Crown corporation has investors in place and is ready to start construction in early 2017 on a plan that would dramatically improve service in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau will be presented with several financing options in the coming months, including some where most of the $4-billion price tag is covered by pension fund investors. Mr. Garneau told The Globe and Mail on Thursday that the government is reviewing Via's plan but could not confirm how quickly a cabinet decision will be made.
Via Rail lobbied hard for the project – which it calls high-frequency rail – in the run-up to the March 22 federal budget. However, the budget announced only $3.3-million over three years to study the plan, including extending it from Quebec City to Windsor.
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, president and CEO of Via Rail, said that's no reason to delay the project, adding that the expanded service could be in place by the fall of 2019.
"We don't see that three-year funding of Transport Canada as in any way slowing down the accelerated timeline that we've put together," he said in an interview, explaining that Via is hoping for a government decision later this year. "We'd like to think there will be shovels in the ground by the spring of 2017."
The prospect of high-speed rail – or at least faster and more frequent service – through Canada's Quebec City-to-Windsor corridor is inching toward reality now that Ottawa and Ontario have pledged billions in infrastructure spending.
Canada is the only G7 nation without a single high-speed rail line. The idea has been raised for years as a way to boost productivity and tackle climate change, but political leaders have balked at the cost.
Now two separate visions are barrelling down that same track. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has asked former federal transport minister David Collenette to produce a plan by the fall on how to move ahead with high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor.
Meanwhile, Via is proposing its more modest plan that would see the acquisition of dedicated passenger rail tracks so that its trains no longer get stuck waiting for freight trains.
Mr. Garneau, who uses Via regularly to travel between Ottawa and his Montreal riding, said his trips are delayed every week because of freight traffic. A dedicated line would allow Via to travel faster and more frequently, he said.
"So that becomes an interesting proposition," he said. Ottawa would likely be asked to contribute about $1-billion, he said, which means officials and cabinet need to thoroughly review the plan. "I can't predict how long it will take for us to do our due diligence," Mr. Garneau added. "I would not take it for granted that it means nothing will happen for three years."
The initial $4-billion project would be limited to the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano listed the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, Public Sector Pension Investment Board and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board as interested investors.
Via's plan falls short of full high-speed rail, but Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano insisted it's better and more affordable. Via trains can travel up to 160 kilometres an hour, while high-speed rail has a minimum speed of 200 kilometres an hour for diesel and 300 kilometres an hour for electrified systems. Japan tested a train last year that reached a record 603 kilometres an hour.
He said high-speed trains would require removing all at-grade rail crossings, which inflates the price. Also, he said, they are meant to travel longer distances without stopping, which makes them more of an alternative to air travel rather than shorter-distance car travel, limiting their effectiveness at reducing road traffic.
The budget's announcement of money to study Via's proposal came just weeks after another federal study had already concluded that building a dedicated passenger track along the corridor is the way to go.
A review of the Canadian Transportation Act, chaired by former federal minister David Emerson, concluded in a report released in February that the current situation faced by Via is "untenable over the longer term."
Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said he's had discussions with Via, but that it is too early to say how the province's plan might be integrated with what the railway is proposing.
Mr. Del Duca also said there is a window of political opportunity to approve major infrastructure projects given that Ottawa and Ontario currently see eye to eye on these issues.
"I think we're going to make some exciting stuff happen," he said.
Via Rail is proposing a $4-billion plan that would allow passenger trains in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor to run on dedicated tracks, which it says would allow for faster and more frequent service. Currently, Via trains face frequent delays because they share track with freight traffic.
Current trip: 4:01
Dedicated tracks: 2:30
Current trip: 1:50
Dedicated tracks: 1:20
Current trip: 4:42
Dedicated tracks: 3:45