The federal government has announced it will be launching a procurement process that could see a multi-billion-dollar high-frequency rail corridor operating between Toronto and Quebec City by the end of the decade.
“This high-frequency rail project would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Canada in decades and will transform travel in this busy transportation corridor,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said during a news conference in Quebec Tuesday morning.
“Quebecers and all Canadians deserve a fast, reliable train service.”
Alghabra, who noted discussions on improved rail service in this busy corridor began in 2016, said officials are looking to open a request for proposal in the fall.
While the final budget will depend on the project’s final scope — something officials noted will be informed by consultations with the private sector, Indigenous communities and municipalities — he said the final cost could be between $6 billion and $12 billion. Alghabra said project construction is slated to be finished by 2030.
When asked by reporters about the choice to pursue high-frequency rail (where trains would travel up to 200 kilometres per hour) versus high-speed rail (which would see trains travel considerably faster), Alghabra said high-speed rail would be much higher in cost and would take longer to complete.
A major issue facing the corridor is the competition with freight rail, which can impact service reliability for passenger trains. The proposal, if ultimately approved, would see dedicated corridors.
During the announcement, Alghabra said service reliability under high-frequency rail could increase to as much as 95 per cent from the current 67 per cent, which would allow for increased train frequency.
“(To ensure) that a three-hour trip doesn’t become a three-and-a-half- or four-hour trip,” he said.
Under the high-frequency rail proposal, Alghabra said it would shave about 30 minutes between Quebec City and Montreal (the current travel time is around three hours and 15 minutes) and 90 minutes between Quebec City and Toronto (the travel time, minus a layover, currently is around eight hours and 15 minutes).
Officials said the investment would mean more direct train trips and would see new services to communities such as Peterborough, Trois-Rivières and Laval. They also noted there would be new stations created as part of the project, such as one near Jean Lesage Airport in Quebec City.
Improved rail service along the corridor has long been talked about and when asked by reporters how this latest proposal will ultimately come to fruition, Alghabra reiterated there was $500 million in the latest budget for the project.
“I understand a lot of people have been dreaming this project,” he said.
“We are here not only to commit through our words, but through our actions.”
Questions raised about timing of announcement, project development
The announcement also came amid increasing speculation a federal election is in the offing later this year.
Stephanie Kusie, the Conservative Party of Canada’s transport critic and the MP for Calgary Midnapore, said the news feels like electioneering “a hundred per cent without question.”
She told Global News the contents of the announcement aren’t new, adding the project was mentioned in the federal budget tabled in April. Kusie also said the technology will only maximum speeds by up to 60 km/h versus a faster high-speed rail system.
“It feels like in addition to the reannouncement, this government is constantly behind the planning and execution of technologies and we end up behind the rest of the world,” she told Global News in an interview while also highlighting other technologies could emerge by the time the high-frequency rail project potentially comes into effect.
Kusie said high-speed rail is a piece of her party’s platform, but she wasn’t able to speak to the exact commitment yet.
Taylor Bachrach, the NDP’s transport critic and the MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, echoed sentiments about the timing of the announcement but also said if done correctly the project has the potential to be a large benefit to the country.
“This seems like a pretty modest step forward,” he told Global News, adding his party too supports investing and enhancing rail infrastructure.
“It’s hard not to look at the timing of the announcement and the speculation of a federal election and link the two. The government had an opportunity to do something much more substantive and we’re seeing a very small step forward.”
Both Kusie and Bachrach raised concerns about how the project will be financed and developed under the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
Global News contacted representatives for the Green Party of Canada and the Bloc Quebecois, but responses weren’t received as of Tuesday afternoon.
In Toronto, Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor in the department of geography and planning at the University of Toronto and an expert in transportation policy, said the notion of faster trains servicing Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal has been reviewed and discussed by several governments for decades.
Siemiatycki said he’s waiting to see if there is updated business case information demonstrating the need for such upgrades, noting questions were raised previously about financial viability.
“The amount of ridership that they’re forecasting here is a really significant increase albeit over a long period of time, and ridership forecasts are notorious for overestimating how many people are riding these systems,” he said.
“With the technologies that are available today, this seems to be the option that best combines cost with speed.”
However, Siemiatycki noted with a focus on infrastructure post-pandemic as well as a period leading up to a potential election, the project could work to address urgent issues such as climate change, mobility, equity and inclusion despite the history of discussions.
“This has been reviewed by governments of all different persuasions. So I think now that so much money is being put into infrastructure and especially now the arguments of spending money on urban transit carry less weight because a lot of money is already going into urban transit, I think there’s a higher likelihood actually that this project will go forward in some form,” he said.
“The caveat, in this case, is that all of this spending is being done with borrowed money and all of that money has to be paid back, so it remains important that we’re investing in the best projects and the evidence needs to support all of the projects being picked.”
When it comes to the overall initiative being a benefit for travellers, Siemiatycki said it doesn’t just fall to faster trains. He said Via Rail has been challenged developing the corridor into a strong, reliable alternative for travellers due to a combination of factors such as fare prices, service reliability and a lack of trips.