The $4 billion question: Why would VIA Rail Canada build a new Toronto-Montreal route?

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TORONTO — VIA Rail Canada’s plan to cobble together a new Toronto-Montreal-Quebec City passenger corridor from abandoned, lightly used, and new rail lines inched closer to reality last week with the approval of $71 million in funding for further studies.

But it raises a question: Why spend more than $4 billion to build a new route when the two existing Toronto-Montreal freight routes are both underused?

VIA’s plan for a passenger-only route would eliminate delays related to freight train interference on the line of road. But it does little to improve access to the busy Toronto and Montreal terminal areas where most delays occur as passenger, commuter, and freight trains all compete for limited track space.

Over the years, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific have floated plans to share trackage in the Toronto-Montreal corridor, which would free up a route for exclusive use by passenger trains.

“That’s the logical answer. But CN and CP are not interested,” says Greg Gormick, a Toronto-based transportation analyst and policy adviser. “VIA doesn’t want that to happen. They want their shining star.”

“The whole thing makes no sense,” says Gormick, a critic of VIA’s so-called High Frequency Rail plan.

The new route would require environmental impact assessments and land acquisition, he says, both of which would add time and cost to a project whose price tag does not include additional train sets.

Several years ago, CN and CP were close to a deal to share trackage between Toronto and Montreal, according to a person familiar with the matter. CN’s double-track route would handle the freight, while CP’s route then could be upgraded and double-tracked west of Smiths Falls, Ontario, to carry VIA passenger trains. CP’s main is already double iron from Smiths Falls to Montreal.

The routes run close together between Toronto and Belleville, Ont., and there is little local freight traffic.

“From an operational point of view and a civil engineering point of view, it would be easy to do,” Gormick says.

But E. Hunter Harrison, who opposed such a move while he was CEO at CN, squashed a potential deal when he came out of retirement to lead CP in 2012, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Now the rival Canadian Class I railroads cooperate where they must — such as on the directional running zone west of Kamloops, British Columbia — and avoid each other where they can.

Reaching a complicated co-production deal involving the Toronto-Montreal corridor seems impossible considering the railways could not settle a dispute this spring on where to interchange traffic in Chicago, Gormick says.

CN and CP also distrust the government, he adds, making a deal involving the Class I railroads, VIA Rail, and Ottawa all the more unlikely.

CP declined to comment, and CN did not directly address co-production in its response to a Trains query.

“We support VIA and all of our customers in their efforts to have safe and efficient travel,” CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis says. “As for this specific project … we look forward to further discussions with VIA.”

VIA says its plan for a new route is the best option.

“When the High Frequency Rail proposal was developed, many options were carefully considered …” VIA spokeswoman Mariam Diaby says. “In the end, the selected option was found to be both the most sustainable as well as the most practical option to achieve our objectives.”

Transport Canada defends the current process and says the Canadian government is committed to improving and modernizing intercity passenger rail service.

The funding for additional studies will help ensure success and private-sector investment in the project, Transport Canada says.

“Moving much of VIA Rail Canada’s operations in the corridor to dedicated passenger tracks would help reduce congestion on conventional shared tracks, thereby improving the movement of both people and goods,” says agency spokeswoman Annie Joannette.

CP runs a half-dozen or so trains per day between Toronto and Montreal, while CN operates 18 or so per day.

CN is aiming to fill up its underused Chicago-Toronto-Halifax corridor by landing more international intermodal traffic at eastern ports such as Halifax and Quebec City, while CP has been touting its available terminal capacity in the Toronto and Montreal areas.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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