After five years of internal planning, VIA Rail’s vision of a dedicated, high-frequency passenger railway from Quebec City to Toronto has secured the backing of the new Canada Infrastructure Bank. A C$55 million investment by the bank was announced June 25 for final pre-procurement planning, including the engineering of technical inter-operation with existing commuter lines in Montreal and Toronto.
Another C$16 million will be anteed up by Transport Canada. With its total $71 million, a “Joint Project Team” of the bank and VIA Rail is to develop the scheme to the point where it can be pitched next year to private-sector investors, notably, the country’s rich public pension funds. The original and so-far unrevised cost estimates for the project range from C$4 billion, for a low-ball diesel-powered service, to C$6 billion for a more politically appealing electrified (overhead catenary) line drawing carbon-free energy from Quebec’s abundant hydroelectric capacity.
The announcement represents the government’s move from a yellow “approach” to a red-over-green “limited speed” endorsement of the project. It stops short of the green-over-red “clear” signal that could conclude this final evaluation stage.
The dedicated line would run from Quebec City to Montreal along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, over former CP trackage now operated in way-freight service by Genesee & Wyoming’s Quebec Gatineau Railway. VIA Rail already grandfathers overnight freight service by Canadian Pacific on its Smith Falls to Brockville subdivision in Ontario. Presumably, it could do the same for Quebec Gatineau’s lineside customers.
From Montreal, the dedicated line would run north from Montreal Central Station to Ottawa, perhaps connecting somewhere with VIA Rail’s existing trackage from Coteau-du-Lac to Ottawa. Alternatively, it could simply follow Quebec Gatineau’s existing line all the way to Ottawa.
From the Canadian capital, the line would hopscotch along a patchwork of operational and abandoned rights-of-way to link up with Ontario’s Metrolinx GO Train commuter network, radiating from downtown Toronto’s Union Station, now being gloriously restored to its full Beaux-Arts beauty.
The most difficult integration will be with Montreal’s Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM), which is due to run its first driverless trains in 2021. With REM’s three-minute headways planned through Central Station’s Mont Royal Tunnel, slotting in VIA Rail’s heavier intercity passenger trains will be an engineering and operational challenge. The government announcement explicitly includes the design of “track work in Montreal’s Mont-Royal Tunnel to enable VIA Rail Canada’s heavy-rail trains to operate on this segment of the REM light rail system.”
VIA Rail’s existing route over CN’s freight main line from Montreal to Toronto would surrender its intercity express status in favor of local trains scheduled to the needs of smaller communities, with Kingston, Ontario, as their hub.
“High Frequency Rail is part of VIA Rail Canada’s transformation toward a more modern passenger service for a more connected, more sustainable and more mobile Canada,” said VIA Rail’s recently appointed CEO, Cynthia Garneau. “We look forward to working with the Canada Infrastructure Bank in this critical step for improving passenger rail to the benefit of Canadians.”
In May, Garneau (no relation to Transport Minister Marc Garneau) succeeded Yves Desjardins-Siciliano who, during his five-year term, mentored the high-frequency corridor project from original concept to practical imminence.