By David Collenette
The announcement this week by the federal government of Via Rail’s high frequency rail initiative in the heavily populated Quebec-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, marks the first time in many years that a new intercity passenger rail line will be inaugurated.
Since 1960, the vast cross-Canada passenger rail network largely built by Canadian Pacific Railway and several companies that the federal government took over in 1919 to create Canadian National Railway, has been gradually reduced, even after Ottawa established Via Rail in 1977. Large swaths of the country have been left to rely on other transport modes, something that has been further diminished with the recent cessation of intercity bus service, offered by Greyhound.
Far sighted politicians like Ontario’s John Robarts and William Davis saw things differently, establishing GO Transit, one of North America’s largest commuter rail systems. Today, that service, under the umbrella of Metrolinx, is expanding outside the traditional commuter belt and being electrified. Commuter rail is also thriving in Montreal and Vancouver.
VIA’s new project will be built largely on CPR right-of-way abandoned decades ago on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal and its route running parallel to Ontario Highway 7 from Perth to Peterborough.
A major selling point for VIA’s plan is that this will be a line not shared with freight traffic and passenger trains and will be able to travel at speeds up to 200 km/h, resulting in faster journey times between the three largest cities. It will also restore passenger service to the significant communities of Peterborough and Trois-Rivières, long bereft of passenger rail.
The government should be applauded for its initiative. With climate change bearing down on us faster than predicted, passenger rail has a better carbon footprint than automobiles or planes. That’s why the government has correctly decided to electrify approximately 90 per cent of the route, whereas VIA had originally proposed continued use of high polluting diesel-powered locomotives.
However, after committing to the significant cost of electrification, the government appears not to be taking the logical next step to engineer construction of the line to achieve true high-speed rail of more than 250 km/h, which would offer a real alternative to air travel.
The VIA plan predicts travel times between Ottawa and Toronto would be lowered from the present 4 hours, 30 minutes to 3 hours, 15 minutes, although in recent times VIA has offered trips of 4 hours. There is also some clarification needed on the trip time between Montreal and Toronto as those trains would stop in Ottawa, adding another hour and a quarter, making the entire trip about 4 hours and 30 minutes.
While this is welcome, it is still a half an hour longer than the 4-hour trip time of CN’s Turbo service in the early 1970s and VIA’s LRC trains in the 1990s. Much of the current delays can be attributed to more and longer freight trains but this will still be a problem in the approaches to Montreal and Toronto, where the new service will have to share tracks with CN and CP. A true high speed rail service would drastically improve on trip times throughout the corridor.
In Ottawa, the obstacles to passenger rail investment have principally originated at the department of finance, even when the prime minster was sympathetic. For 40 years there has been a view that transportation should be deregulated, privatized and subsidies eliminated. In many respects this has worked in the freight rail and aviation sectors, but the economics are not as convincing with passenger rail, which has always needed subsidy.
Ontario’s high speed rail project instituted by premier Kathleen Wynne for the Toronto-London-Windsor corridor found there was a sound business case for much of the project. With the arrival of Michael Sabia as deputy minister off finance in Ottawa, the paradigm has changed. After earlier stints with the public service, Sabia played a key part in the CN privatization and then, as CEO of Caisse Depot, was a prime mover in the development and financing of the new Montreal light rail system (REM), now under construction. Sabia understands the need for innovation and bold policies to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Governments at all levels have not been shy at spending what is necessary to fight the pandemic and it is paying off in more ways than one. The economy is responding as COVID-19 recedes. The federal government should be willing to go the extra mile to commit funding to the development of transportation solutions that deal with the challenges of climate change.
Not only would this address the existential challenge of our time, but it would have a sound economic benefit. Many in the transportation community believe that if VIA’s new plan was modified to become true high-speed rail, there would not only be a positive business case, but the project would be a game changer that would lead to similar projects in other intercity corridors.
● David Collenette was a Toronto MP and minister who served under three prime ministers. He was Minister of Transport (1997-2003) and Ontario’s special adviser on high speed rail (2015-2018).
Source : Toronto Star Newspapers
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