News Analysis: VIA's 'high frequency' plan gets funding, but only for a study

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A map shows VIA's proposed High Frequency Rail route.
VIA Rail Canada
The former Canadian Pacific route, shown near Tweed, Ontario, would be revived as a passenger-only right-of-way under VIA's plan.
Bob Johnston

MONTREAL — The Government of Canada and the Canada Infrastructure Bank, an “arm’s length” Crown corporation formed to fund big transportation projects, announced Tuesday that they will help finance an exploration of VIA Rail Canada’s proposed separate rail line in the Quebec City-Toronto Corridor.

The government and infrastructure bank will commit C$71.1 million ($54 million in U.S. dollars) to establish a joint project team with VIA to examine the High Frequency Rail project.

It was in 2015 that former VIA president Yves Desjardins-Siciliano first floated the idea of moving most trains off their current busy and populous Canadian National routes as a means of increasing frequencies and reliability. But it took an impending election for Canada’s Liberal government to come up with the funds to “work to preserve the option of interoperability with regional transit providers in Montreal and Toronto,” according to a Transport Canada press release.

The announcement was made in Trois-Rivieres, Que., by Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, VIA Rail President Cynthia Garneau (no relation), bank officials, and a Liberal member of Parliament.  Another ceremony with elected officials took place in Peterborough, Ont. Both communities had passenger service when VIA Rail Canada was formed in 1978, but were eventually bypassed.

CN and Canadian Pacific ran Quebec-Montreal-Toronto “pool trains” over their respective lines prior to the VIA takeover, but CP eventually ripped out what had become a secondary Montreal-Toronto route west of Smiths Falls. It is now a bicycle trail east of Havelock, Ont., and a low-speed branch line from there through Peterborough into Toronto. VIA’s plan would completely rebuild the route as a “high frequency” passenger route.

A Trains News Wire comparison of travel times on the proposed routes when they both hosted “pool service” trains in May 1965 with current VIA operations finds the routes to be resurrected were much slower:

Ottawa-Toronto via Peterborough (CP): 8 hours. 45 minutes (overnight)

Ottawa-Toronto via Brockville, Ont. (VIA-CN): 4 hours. 43 minutes (slowest schedule)

Montreal-Quebec via Trois-Rivieres (CP): 4 hours (average of all trains)

Montreal-Quebec via Drummondville (CN): 3 hours, 15 minutes (average)

The funding announced today will:

— finalize legal and regulatory work related to safety and environmental assessments

— consult with stakeholders and Indigenous communities

— examine required land and track acquisition

— complete the technical, financial, and commercial analysis required for a final investment decision

No target date to complete the study has been announced. Yet it is clear the Trudeau government has done little so far to advance the project, just as it has consistently declined to intervene on behalf of VIA’s customers to improve CN’s handling of passenger trains, despite substantial stimulus-funded capacity and station investments on the existing corridor dating from 2009.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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