Via Rail and the Canada Infrastructure Bank are turning to a U.K. passenger rail expert to lead the team developing a multibillion-dollar plan for high-frequency rail between Quebec City and Toronto.
Via Rail confirmed to The Globe and Mail that Vernon Barker, an independent consultant who has previously held senior positions with Siemens Rail Systems U.K. and FirstGroup PLC’s U.K. rail division, has been hired as project director and is putting together a team.
“His considerable experience in the rail industry and skill at leading high-performing teams in the delivery of complex, large-scale rail projects makes him uniquely qualified for the job,” Via Rail spokesperson Karl-Philip Marchand Giguère said.
The federal government, Via Rail and the bank announced in June that the bank - and Ottawa - would contribute $71-million toward “preprocurement” work for the project. ($55-million of that would come from the bank.)
Via and the bank said at the time that they would work together over an 18- to 24-month period to bring the planning to a point at which the high-frequency rail plan can attract private investors, such as pension funds.
Canada Infrastructure Bank chief executive Pierre Lavallée told The Globe in June that the work is “far more than a study” and would ultimately lead to calling for construction tenders.
The federal government has not given a final green light to the proposal, which Via Rail has advocated for years. Previous Via estimates have pegged the cost at between $4-billion and $6-billion (the higher cost would be for electric-powered trains).
Described as high-frequency rail (HFR), the plan would lead to about 850 kilometres of dedicated passenger rail tracks across Quebec and Ontario. The service would use traditional passenger rail trains – not high-speed trains – but Via promises that having its own tracks will allow for more frequent and reliable service. The federally owned passenger rail company loses money each year and has long complained that it is hampered by having to share tracks with freight traffic.
In December, Via announced that it awarded a $989-million contract to Germany’s Siemens AG to build 32 new trainsets to replace the aging fleet that currently operates in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. The new trains are expected to be in service starting in 2022.
The Siemens contract was criticized by Alain Bellemare, CEO of Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., who said Canada should be doing more to protect Canadian jobs.
Mr. Barker spent slightly more than a year with Siemens Rail Systems U.K. as managing director before returning to independent consulting in May, 2018.
After leaving FirstGroup’s U.K. rail division in 2015, Mr. Barker spent four months in 2016 as a participant in the Clipper Round the World yacht race.
“The race is a test of one’s physical, mental and emotional strength,” Mr. Barker wrote on his LinkedIn profile. “I sailed more than 10,000 nautical miles over four months. An unforgettable adventure, I saw how complete strangers can work together to become a strong, determined, motivated and resilient team.”
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