Via Rail to put greater emphasis on speed for planned high-frequency line: executive

“Speed and frequency are not mutually exclusive, and we need both,” says Martin Imbleau, who says the new Montreal-Toronto corridor will run at least 200 km/h but possibly faster.

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Via Rail is thinking of changing the name of its planned high-frequency line in the Quebec City-Toronto corridor to reflect a greater focus on speed.

Three groups are in the running to develop the line, and Ottawa will select a winning bidder by year’s end, Martin Imbleau, the Via Rail executive who’s leading the project, said Tuesday. One of the consortia, called Cadence, includes the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and AtkinsRealis, the Montreal-based engineering firm previously known as SNC-Lavalin Group.

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Via’s high-frequency line will be the biggest public infrastructure project in Canada since the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Using almost 1,000 kilometres of dedicated tracks, trains will make stops in Trois-Rivières, Laval, Montreal, Ottawa and Peterborough, Ontario. Via Rail trains currently run on freight railways, which can cause traffic-related delays.

“This train will be transformative for Quebec and for Canada,” Imbleau, chief executive of Via HFR, said Tuesday in a speech before the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal.

“It will be fast, frequent and dependable. Speed and frequency are not mutually exclusive, and we need both. Given this, with our government partners we have begun thinking about an evolution in our image. Stay tuned.”

Via Rail has asked the three interested groups to propose operating standards that are comparable to those of European railroads, Imbleau said. For instance, Eurostar trains between Paris and Amsterdam typically average speeds of about 200 kilometres per hour, he said.

“Today, we connect Montreal to Toronto in 5:15 or 5:30, sometimes more, to cover 540 km,” he said. “What will it be tomorrow? 3:30, 3:15, 3:00 or less? That’s what we’ll be working on. The shortest possible journey times, exactly like in Europe.”

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“This now means a 200 km/h service, and proposals beyond that, with no maximum speed limit,” he added. “In other words, as fast as possible.”

While officials are primarily looking at serving downtown Montreal and Toronto with the new line, it’s possible that stations in those two cities could end up outside the central business district, Imbleau said.

“The initial scheme that we’re considering and discussing is that the stations in Toronto and Montreal would be downtown,” he told reporters after his speech. “I say ‘initial’ because let’s give ourselves some room to manoeuvre to position the infrastructure to ensure that we see a shift in transportation” patterns.

It’s premature to give specifics about costs, a route or a commissioning date, Imbleau also said.

“It’s a colossal project, the kind that you only see once in a generation,” he said.

Once the winning partner has been selected, a development phase of three to four years will follow, giving engineers the time to secure various permits, Imbleau said. Each portion of the line could take several years to build.

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Exact project costs will be determined during the development phase, he said. The winning consortium will be expected to foot part of the bill in exchange for an equity stake in the line.

Asked whether he expects to see the train operate during his lifetime, Imbleau, 51, was categorical.

“I would not be here if I didn’t think that I would see it in my lifetime,” he said. “I will be the first passenger on this train.”

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Via Rail expects 15 to 20 million passengers will use the new service by the mid-2040s. Ontario and Quebec are projected to have almost 30 million inhabitants combined by that point, or 60 per cent of the country’s population, up from 24 million currently.

Besides Cadence, the two other groups bidding for the work are Intercity Rail Developers, which includes Intercity Development Partners, EllisDon Capital, Kilmer Transportation, First Rail Holdings, Jacobs, Hatch, CIMA+, First Group, France’s RATP and Spain’s Renfe Operadora; and QConnexiON Rail Partners, which includes Fengate, John Laing, Bechtel, WSP Canada and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn.

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