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Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, left, and Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez speak at a news conference in Montreal regarding proposals for a high-frequency rail project, on July 20.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has released a short list of private-sector bidders to build a high-frequency passenger rail line between Quebec City and Toronto that could include high-speed service and launch in the mid-2030s.

Speaking at a news conference in Montreal’s downtown train station Thursday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said it was too early to discuss the potential cost of the proposed system, which would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Canadian history.

The project would improve travel times by creating dedicated passenger rail lines, separate from freight traffic. Most of the track currently used by Via Rail in Quebec and Ontario is owned by Canadian National Railway CNR-T, so freight trains are given priority, often forcing passenger trains to pull off to the side. The freight traffic also significantly limits the frequency of passenger trips Via Rail can offer.

“High-frequency rail will give Canadians a world-class passenger rail transportation system between Quebec City and Toronto. Shorter journey times could also mean using high-speed segments,” Mr. Alghabra said.

The ministers said the three consortiums on the short list will be asked to present two options: one based on the original plan of high-frequency rail using traditional passenger trains, with speeds of about 200 kilometres an hour, and a second option that includes trains running at higher speeds.

High-speed trains in Europe can travel 300 kilometres an hour or more.

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Mr. Alghabra said four consortiums submitted bids through a request for qualifications process launched in February. The top three have been selected to move ahead in a request for proposals process that will end in the summer of 2024, when a finalist is selected. The government will then negotiate with the winning consortium on a more detailed construction plan.

The three finalists include Cadence, which is made up of CDPQ Infra – the infrastructure division of Quebec’s pension fund – SNC-Lavalin, Systra Canada and Keolis Canada.

“Cadence intends to submit a high-quality proposal during the next phase of this procurement process for this fundamental Canadian project,” the group said in a statement.

Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has led Montreal’s new 67-kilometre REM commuter rail line project, a section of which is scheduled to open July 31.

Another bidder is Intercity Rail Developers, which includes Intercity Development Partners, EllisDon Capital, Kilmer Transportation, First Rail Holdings, Jacobs, Hatch and CIMA+.

First Rail is a major bus and passenger rail operator in Britain, running about a quarter of that country’s passenger rail system. It is also involved in the design and delivery of the U.K.’s High Speed 2, a planned 400-kilometre high-speed rail line with bullet trains travelling at speeds of as much as 362 kilometres an hour.

And the third consortium is QConnxiON Rail Partners, made up of Fengate, John Laing, Bechtel, WSP Canada and Deutsche Bahn.

Bechtel was a key partner in the U.K.’s High Speed 1 project, which links London to the Channel Tunnel to France. Trains on that line can reach speeds of as much as 300 kilometres an hour.

Mr. Rodriguez said the government will consider speed and cost when evaluating the proposals.

“We want the best we can get for the best price,” he said.

Mr. Alghabra previously speculated that the project could cost between $6-billion and $12-billion, but that was before he began expressing a clear openness to high-speed rail.

While high-speed rail is common in Europe and Asia, previous proposals in Canada have been rejected over cost concerns.

A high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles has been under construction for years and is facing massive cost overruns. The project began with a US$9-billion bond but is now estimated to cost between US$88-billion and US$128-billion.

Still, recently announced federal infrastructure funds in the U.S. have revived proposals for high-speed rail in several regions of the country.

The proposed Quebec City-to-Toronto line would extend more than 1,000 kilometres and run north of the tracks currently used by Via Rail. Plans include stops in Trois-Rivières, Montreal, Ottawa and Peterborough. Via would continue to use the existing line to service communities along that route, such as Kingston and Drummondville, Que.

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Via has said its initial proposal would reduce travel times by a quarter and dramatically improve on-time performance. For example, it said a trip from Ottawa to Toronto would take three hours and 15 minutes instead of the current 4½ hours.

One of the main reasons high-speed rail is more expensive is it generally requires the construction of numerous bridges to avoid at-grade crossings. Traditional rail lines can cross roads at grade with proper signalling.

Jacques Roy, a professor of logistics and transportation systems at HEC Montreal, said the consortiums all include well-credentialed companies in the field. He said that while the government seems to be increasingly open to the idea of high-speed rail, he wonders if that is a good option for the entire route.

“You could probably justify the high-speed train between Montreal and Toronto, but for the rest of the network, I’m not convinced,” he said.

Saiedeh Razavi, a professor of civil engineering at McMaster University who specializes in intelligent transportation systems and heavy construction, said the bidders will need to be evaluated on their ability to deliver both types of passenger rail systems.

“Generally, dedicated tracks and higher frequency result in higher speeds, but this doesn’t mean ‘high-speed rail,’” she said in an e-mail, adding that high-speed rail is usually understood to mean speeds in excess of 250 kilometres an hour. “A high-speed rail requires specialized trains that are designed aerodynamically to optimize speed, stability and safety. They also require the use of sophisticated and more advanced safety and signalling systems.”

During the news conference, Mr. Alghabra said that after a winner is selected, the project will need to undergo an environmental impact study and finalize negotiations with Indigenous communities along the line.

“I’d love to see the service in operation in mid-2030s. That is where we expect the service to be ready to begin,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process – I acknowledge that. But this is the best way to do it, because we want to do it right and we want to get the best value for Canadians.”

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