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A Via Rail train heading to Toronto is seen at the Dorval station June 25, 2019 in Montreal. Canada Infrastructure Bank is providing $71 million to Via Rail to help it in its plan to build dedicated tracks for faster, more frequent service in Ontario and Quebec.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Plans for a new multibillion-dollar passenger rail link between Toronto and Quebec City are taking another step as documents show March 31, 2021, is now the deadline for completing all engineering work before a final cabinet decision.

The Canada Infrastructure Bank and Via Rail are looking to hire a team of engineers by Dec. 19 to complete the detailed work.

The new timelines and other details are in a request for proposal for engineer services recently posted on a contracting tender website. The search for help comes as Via, an independent Crown corporation, launches a new marketing campaign for its plan, which it calls “high-frequency rail.” Via’s promotional materials – including a video and an updated map – promise that dedicated passenger tracks “would completely change the way we travel.”

Passenger trains that no longer have to share rail lines with freight traffic could travel as fast as 177 kilometers an hour. Via says this could reduce travel time from Ottawa to Toronto to three hours and 15 minutes, compared to the current four hours and 30 minutes, “an experience that’s better than driving.”

Previous estimates have pegged the cost at $4-billion to $6-billion, depending on whether the line is built to run trains using electric power. The proposed engineering work would update the cost estimates.

The federal government has not approved Via’s plan, but participated in a June announcement in which Transport Canada and the infrastructure bank pledged a combined $71.1-million for further work on it.

The Canada Infrastructure Bank was created in 2017 with a $35-billion budget and a mandate to encourage large institutional investors such as pension funds to invest in revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are in the public interest.

The bank has previously awarded $1.28-billion toward Montreal’s $6.3-billion light rail project, which is lead by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s pension fund.

The proposed engineering work would involve deciding how Montreal’s light rail system and Via could share the Mont-Royal tunnel into the city. Whether that is possible has been a source of tension between proponents of the two projects.

The engineering team is also required to review how Via’s plan would work with commuter rail expansion and construction plans in the Greater Toronto Area. The engineers will report to recently hired project director Vernon Barker, an independent consultant and British rail expert who has held senior positions with Siemens Rail Systems in Britain and FirstGroup PLC’s British rail division.

The latest documents show that while Via initially proposed the plan as a “traditional government-funded approach,” the joint project office led by Mr. Barker will work to develop the project as a public-private partnership, or P3, in which an independent company or consortium would design, build, finance, maintain and potentially operate the new rail service.

Canada has a long history of successful P3 infrastructure projects. However, decision makers in Ottawa are reminded daily that smooth service from such projects is not guaranteed.

The City of Ottawa is paying more than $4-million a month to a private consortium called Rideau Transit Group (RTG) as part of a 30-year contract to run a light rail transit system that launched in September. The consortium includes international infrastructure firms such as ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc., EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

However, the service was postponed several times, and has had frequent delays and shutdowns since it opened in September.

At a recent city council meeting, city manager Steve Kanellakos condemned RTG for “inadequate management oversight, poor planning, under-resourcing and failure to anticipate predictable issues.”

One of the first assignments of the engineering team on the Via project will be to review all previously proposed alignments, or layouts, for the route, as well as alternatives, and to select a final route by March 31, 2020.

“The objective of the alignment assessment is to help reduce tight curves, leading to an increase in average speed and reduction in travel time,” the request for proposals states. The work would also include station details at cities along the route, such as Montreal, Peterborough and Toronto, “including station capacity and guidance on exploring alternative terminal points in downtown city centers.”

Communities that would benefit from the new line have criticized the Liberal government for not approving it already.

However, Alan Russell, a civil engineering professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in the study of P3s, said the March, 2021, deadline for the engineering firm to complete its work is “doable” but tight.

“What seems to be preordained is that some version of the project will go ahead,” he said.