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Less than 20 years ago, intercity commuters leaving Toronto at 5 p.m. could take an express Via Rail train from Union Station in downtown Toronto and arrive at Central Station in downtown Montreal in three hours and 59 minutes.
In 2020, the same trip takes up to five hours. And that’s after the federal government invested more than $300 million over the past decade to improve the service.
Via Rail, a federal Crown corporation, has said it isn’t entirely to blame for these results.
Its passenger trains are using railway tracks that Via doesn’t own. CN, a former Crown corporation that was privatized in 1995, owns most of these tracks.
This requires Via to negotiate agreements on access and scheduling with CN, without guarantees that the passenger trains will have the timely access needed to keep trips on time.
“We’ve seen a massive deterioration in on-time performance over the last 10 years,” Terry Johnson, president of Transport Action Canada, a lobby group that advocates for more sustainable and reliable public transportation services, said in an interview.
Up to one-third of all of its trains were late over the past three years, it told Global News, mainly due to increased traffic on the rail infrastructure it shares with CN and other partners.
Via is now proposing a new solution to get around CN’s tracks in the Toronto to Quebec City corridor, where most of its customers travel.
The so-called “High Frequency Rail” plan would cost an estimated $4.4 billion and allow Via to take control of its own infrastructure, including some currently underused train tracks on the modified route between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.
If it succeeds, Via Rail says it could generate more revenues and reduce the subsidies it collects from taxpayers. But a number of obstacles remain to making this government priority a reality.
If it fails, Via has warned that its survival is at stake.
A Via Rail train moves through Toronto on Feb. 10, 2020.
Brent Rose/Global News
In a 2017 corporate planning report, Via said it was “impossible” for it to keep its trains on time under the current system. As a result, the company said it could lose passengers, forcing it to make “drastic” service cuts.
“Economic growth has led to network congestion that has caused service deterioration and negatively affects Via Rail’s financial performance and growth, posing a large risk to Via Rail’s viability and survival,” the company said in the 2017 report.
“Continuing with the status quo can only result in greater operating deficits and a gradual elimination of train services.”
In 2019, Via Rail reported that it wanted to avoid legal battles with CN over delays because it was “dependent on CN’s infrastructure and dispatch services” and wanted to maintain a positive operating relationship.
CN has said that its freight trains transport about $250 billion worth of merchandise every year and play an important role in the Canadian economy.
Via Rail estimates that it moves about five million passengers per year, with most of them travelling between its busiest stations in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
People pass through Union Station in Toronto on Feb. 12, 2020.
Kurt Brownridge/Global News
Via Rail and the federally funded Canada Infrastructure Bank announced in January that they had awarded an engineering contract to two firms, AECOM and Arup, to finalize the High Frequency Rail route options by the end of March 2020 and to deliver a complete proposal by the end of March 2021. The latter would include an analysis of what it would cost to electrify the entire network, along with a construction schedule and operating costs over a 50-year lifespan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listed the project as a priority in the mandate letters he wrote in December 2019 for Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna.
The Trudeau government created the Canada Infrastructure Bank in 2017 to provide financing and support for major projects and entice private sector investments to improve the chances of success.
The government also announced $71 million in initial funding for the Via proposal in 2019 so that officials could start planning the project.
Trudeau’s cabinet would make a final decision on whether to proceed with high-frequency rail after reviewing recommendations from the two consulting firms. It could then take up to four years to complete construction, according to Via Rail’s corporate reports.
But even if the project succeeds, the projected trip times between Montreal and Toronto may still take about five hours, remaining slower than the express trains of the 1990s and the early 2000s, according to an internal memo sent to the deputy finance minister in January 2019 and obtained by Global News.
Although Via has suggested the project would still increase ridership and reduce operating costs, projections about the anticipated trip times have prompted questions about whether the Crown corporation has chosen the best option for passengers.
“Our key question about HFR, we have not had this question answered is, is this the cheapest way to do it? Or is there a way to do it on the existing corridor with political will?” asked Johnson, from the transportation lobby group.
A Via Rail ad from the 1990s promotes the express train.
Supplied image courtesy of Terry Johnson
The internal memo from the Finance Department said some trip times could improve.
For example, it estimates a one-hour reduction in the trip time from Toronto to Ottawa, making it a three-hour-and-15-minute trip. The memo, previously released to the Globe and Mail through access to information legislation, said the Montreal-Ottawa trip would also be about 20 to 30 minutes faster, taking about one hour and 33 minutes, while the Montreal-Quebec City trip would be about one hour faster than current schedules, taking about two hours and 10 minutes.
The project would rely on some existing underused tracks that go through Peterborough, Ont., instead of Kingston, as well as through Trois-Rivières, Que., on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, instead of Drummondville, on the south shore. Via could still offer service on the old routes owned by CN, although it hasn’t confirmed how all of its schedules would change.
Global News asked CN whether it had the capacity on its existing right-of-way to add dedicated tracks for passenger rail along the entire route between Montreal and Toronto and whether it has discussed this possibility with federal officials. But CN declined to say, citing commercial confidentiality.
“CN works closely with Via to provide quality service and Via’s on-time performance on the busiest Quebec to Windsor corridor is consistent and pretty solid,” CN spokesman Alexandre Boulé said in an email to Global News. “Our teams work diligently to balance the operating realities of running freight, commuter and intercity passenger service on the same network.”
In 2016, Canada’s auditor general released a report stating that Via Rail hadn’t succeeded in improving passenger service following $318 million in federal investments. This money was mainly used to add passing tracks between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal to reduce congestion and speed up trips.
It was part of about $923 million in capital spending for Via, since 2008, that included money to renovate stations and refurbish Via’s fleet.
This article first appeared on globalnews.ca
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