After this week’s purchase of nearly $1-billion worth of new trains, VIA Rail President Yves Desjardins-Siciliano is setting his sights on the Liberal government’s 2019 budget in hope that it will green light a multibillion-dollar expansion of its passenger rail network.
The Crown corporation’s plan has strong support at the federal cabinet table from Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who told The Globe and Mail this week that he is convinced of its merits.
Via’s proposed “High Frequency Rail” project – or HFR – would see the installation of dedicated passenger rail lines along the Quebec City to Toronto corridor – and possibly further west to Windsor, Ont. – so that travellers are no longer left waiting along the line as freight trains receive priority on the current lines owned by other companies, primarily CN Rail.
Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano told The Globe on Thursday that he expects a decision will be made early next year, either with traditional infrastructure funding or through the new Canada Infrastructure Bank.
“We’re still confident that a decision will be made on this file by the government of Canada early in 2019,” he said.
Via Rail announced on Wednesday that it is awarding a $989-million contract to Germany’s Siemens for new passenger rail cars and locomotives that will be manufactured in Sacramento, Calif. The decision was sharply criticized by Canada’s Bombardier Inc. – which had submitted a competing bid – and by Canadian labour leaders who said the contract should have supported local jobs. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Canada’s international trade obligations prevent Ottawa from favouring domestic firms.
Via’s proposal for dedicated passenger lines would cost at least $4-billion. The cost would rise to about $6-billion if the line is equipped to run trains using electric power.
Over the past three years, the Liberal government has offered tentative support for the idea with in-depth studies, but it has not fully endorsed the project.
Mr. Champagne, who represents the Quebec riding of Saint-Maurice-Champlain that would benefit from a new passenger rail line between Montreal and Quebec City along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, told The Globe he is “totally” behind VIA’s plan.
“It’s in line with our vision for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s in line with our vision to promote public transit and, for me, it’s a great tool [for] empowering labour mobility,” he said.
Mr. Champagne is a key voice at the cabinet table as the government weighs its options for big infrastructure spending items that could be announced in 2019, a federal election year.
One of the challenges in terms of timing is that federal officials view Via’s project as a potential candidate for funding through the infrastructure bank. The new Crown corporation has a $35-billion budget, but has only funded one project. The bank is designed to operate at arm’s length of government. As a result, its leadership may not be moving at a pace that coincides with the Liberal government’s desire to announce infrastructure projects in the run-up to the fall 2019 election.
Some passenger-rail advocates accuse Via – and Ottawa – of thinking small. The HFR plan is based on running the new, traditional-style passenger trains at top speeds of about 177 km/h with frequent departures. That is very different from full high-speed passenger trains that can reach speeds of 250 km/h or more. However, high-speed rail is much more expensive because of the need to eliminate at-grade crossings with intersecting roads and rail lines.
There are also questions about the proposed routes. Rather than running parallel to the existing CN Rail lines between Toronto and Montreal, a new HFR line would run from Toronto through Peterborough, Ont., toward Ottawa and then on to Montreal. On the Quebec side, Via’s existing service along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River would be complemented by a Via-owned track linking Montreal and Quebec City along the north shore. The federal studies – which have not been released – included looking at extending the plan through Southwestern Ontario to Windsor, but that would not likely be part of the initial stage of the plan.