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We wrote in a previous editorial that the surest sign yet the minority Liberal government will call an election by the end of the summer was its announcement on Monday that the five-year-old proposal to improve Via Rail service between Toronto and Quebec City had made another incremental step forward.

It was the kind of pre-election foreplay aimed at exciting voters in key ridings. But when you examine what the government actually said about Via’s “high-frequency rail” project, you’re quickly struck by how there’s a lot more noise than signal.

The Trudeau government only committed to “taking the first steps in preparing for the procurement process.” And it reiterated that the project’s success is dependent on finding a private investor – an excellent idea, but hardly a given.

On paper, the plan is simple enough, and even reasonable.

Virtually all of Via Rail’s business – 96 per cent in 2019, to be exact – involves moving passengers along the Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, with the bulk of it on Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City section.

But Via’s average annual operating loss in the four years prior to the pandemic was about $272-million – all of it covered by Ottawa. And, in 2019, its trains were on time only 68 per cent of the time.

It’s a terrible performance, but Via argues it’s not to blame. It’s not entirely wrong about that. One major problem is that its service is confined to tracks along Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River that are dominated by ever-growing freight traffic. As a result, its trains are often delayed, can’t run at higher speeds, and can’t depart frequently enough to attract more riders.

Its $6-billion solution is to shift passenger trains north, onto existing tracks and new tracks to be laid on existing rail beds. This dedicated corridor would run from Toronto through Peterborough, Ont., to Ottawa and then Montreal, and on to Quebec City via new tracks on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence.

Via calls it “high-frequency rail,” as opposed to the much sexier “high-speed rail.” Having dedicated rails means that even low-tech trains, freed of freight congestion, would be able to travel up to 177 kilometres an hour (in Europe, high-speed trains top 300 km/h), could depart as often as four times an hour, and would almost always be on time, according to Via’s publicity material.

That sounds great, but there are obvious drawbacks to the proposal. Via likes to boast it would cut the trip from Toronto to Ottawa from the current 4½ hours to three hours and 15 minutes. But it stays mute on the fact that the more circuitous northern route, with its stop in Ottawa, would mean the trip from Toronto to Montreal would be at least 4½ hours – longer than it was 40 years ago.

As well, two consultant’s reports uncovered by The Globe and Mail in 2019 raised questions about extending the project all the way to Quebec City, as spending so much money on the low-traffic route would hurt profitability and weaken the business case for potential investors.

Since 2016, Via Rail has pitched the notion that pension funds would be interested in a major infrastructure project such as this. The Liberals subsequently seized on the idea to drum up work for the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The CIB, created by the Liberals in 2017 and overseen by cabinet, is supposed to invest $35-billion in revenue-generating public infrastructure projects, with the goal of attracting even more investment from the private sector. To date, it has done very little of that.

The bottom line is that any potential investor will have to be convinced that Via Rail has the chops to make money in a competitive market that includes airlines operating from unsubsidized airports, and bus companies and car drivers using a toll-free highway system.

They would also have to contend with an interfering government that has a political interest in making sure the politically valuable leg to Quebec City is part of the package, even if that torpedoes profitability.

Via Rail is right to look at improving its most lucrative (or, rather, least unprofitable) business. But its proposal is a compromise solution, part business and part politics, pitched by a money-losing Crown corporation to a Liberal government that never takes its eye off the next election.

None of which inspires confidence that this train should ever leave the station.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to reflect that virtually all of Via Rail’s business – 96 per cent in 2019, to be exact – involves its passenger service along the Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, with the bulk of that on the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City section.

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