Canada Infrastructure Bank to work with Via on high-frequency Passenger Rail Plan

Liberal ministers will announce a formal role for the Canada Infrastructure Bank Tuesday in developing Via Rail’s plans for a new multibillion-dollar passenger rail line, but the joint news conferences in Ontario and Quebec are expected to fall short of giving the project a final green light.

On the eve of a federal election and after years of study, federal ministers, the bank and Via are expected to announce that the bank will contribute funds toward further work on how to “de-risk” the project.

The Liberal government created the arm’s length bank with a mandate to step in with grants or loans that will make large public infrastructure projects more appealing to private investors – such as pension funds – by absorbing some of the financial risk.

Government sources, to whom The Globe and Mail granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed the broad nature of Tuesday’s announcement.

Sources say the announcement is a significant milestone, but it does not mean the project has been cleared to start construction.

The plan under consideration calls for what is known as high-frequency rail, or HFR. Via Rail’s initial proposal was to build an exclusive rail line from Montreal to Toronto through Ottawa and Peterborough, Ont. But recent developments indicate an expanded plan that includes Quebec City.

The Liberal government’s 2016 budget provided money to study the idea and to consider expanding it to the entire Quebec City-to-Windsor corridor.

Since then, Transport Canada has continued to study the business plan and the infrastructure bank was asked to consider the project. Via Rail has been working with the communities along the proposed line, such as Trois-Rivières, Que., and Smiths Falls, Ont., to endorse the plan.

A notice for the announcement, posted Monday, indicates that Canada Infrastructure Bank president and chief executive officer Pierre Lavallée will join federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne in Trois-Rivières to “make an announcement related to the advancement of Via Rail Canada’s proposal for High Frequency Rail in the Quebec City-Toronto Corridor.”

International Development Minister Maryam Monsef is scheduled to make a similar announcement at the same time in Peterborough, which is in her ridestim

Via’s proposal was initially estimated to cost at least $4-billion, plus an additional $2-billion if the lines were built to run trains on electric power.

Via’s pitch is that its current system regularly faces delays that are outside of its control because it operates on freight lines primarily owned by Canadian National Railway Co., which gives priority to freight traffic. Running trains on a Via-owned, dedicated passenger rail line would, according to Via, slice travel times by a quarter and allow for trains to arrive on time more than 95 per cent of the time.

Its website lists the current average travel time between Montreal and Toronto at five hours and eight minutes, while travelling between Ottawa and Toronto currently takes four hours and 26 minutes, on average.

Critics of the plan have questioned why it is based on traditional passenger trains – with top speeds of about 177 km/hr – rather than the full high-speed passenger trains that are common in Europe and Asia, where trains operate at 250 km/hr or more. Via has said high-speed rail is too expensive because it requires the rail line to be fully grade separated from intersecting roads.

Concern has also been expressed over the fact that the proposed new line from Montreal to Toronto takes the less direct route through Ottawa and bypasses the many cities and towns along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Via’s plan does propose to continue serving those communities on the southern CN line by using Kingston as a hub station to better schedule the passenger trains that will continue operating on a shared line with freight.

The stretch from Ottawa to Peterborough would involve reviving a long-abandoned rail line that has since been converted into a recreational trail. An existing Canadian Pacific Railway line from Peterborough to Toronto would likely have to be purchased and refurbished as part of Via’s project.

Former Via Rail board member Anthony Perl, who is a professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said Canada is an international laggard when it comes to building passenger rail lines, pointing to Uzbekistan as an example of a country that has full high-speed rail linking its major cities.

“When we are so far behind the rest of the world in passenger railways, my main concern is about the ‘talk-do’ ratio,” he said. “We need to stop talking and start doing soon if we stand any chance of catching up with Uzbekistan.”

* Source-Globe and Mail

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