On Friday February 17, 2023, federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra and Parliamentary Secretary Annie Koutrakis made yet another announcement about High Frequency Rail, at Gare Central in Montreal, but still had nothing tangible to show for the eight years of study that has already gone into the project.
While High Frequency Rail will be the most significant investment in sustainable passenger rail in Canada in decades, and one that will have a transformative impact on travel in the corridor, it should never have become this hard to deliver.
Today’s announcement of a Request for Qualifications confirms that the government continues to insist on making this project vastly more complex, and potentially more expensive, than it needs to be. As representatives of the interests of passengers, Transport Action Canada is concerned by the Government of Canada’s lack of transparency and extended procurement process for High Frequency Rail, which are causing unnecessary delay to the desperately needed modernization of passenger rail in Canada.
Three quarters of the proposed route uses existing corridors that could be made ready for initial passenger service in weeks or months, using the Canada Transportation Act to negotiate the necessary upgrades with the infrastructure owners. Only the section between Peterborough and Smith Falls requires major construction, and even that would largely reuse a former right of way.
The central idea of HFR, when first proposed in 2015, was that it could be done quickly. Indeed, it was supposed to be up and running by now. Instead, we have a mega-project procurement that’s being dragged out over nearly a decade, and the government has once again declined to publish the $71M Canada Infrastructure Bank study against which the bids will be evaluated. A contract to begin construction might not even be concluded before the next election.
In 2021, the Minister made announcements that indicated the government was ready to commit, and the impact assessment was about to start. Then after the election everything was pushed back and the process extended by years, with a budget into the hundreds of millions simply for procurement. The only justification we have been given for this change in procurement model is that it “promotes innovation.” Even if it did, which is doubtful, that’s not what’s needed.
While Canada was once an intercity rail technology leader, we have fallen so far behind in this area that there’s very little scope for innovation. Everything needed to deploy high frequency conventional express trains, or even high-speed rail, is off-the-shelf technology that’s globally well understood. Responding to questions about high-speed rail, and recent pressure from Quebec politicians, the government used proven examples – Germany’s ICE network and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor – which show how the two can be blended.
We just need the political will to pick up the tools and start building.
Neither has any justification been given for including a 30+ year private sector operating concession for the entire corridor, including existing routes and the new trains recently purchased for VIA Rail. There’s no big commercial secret to operating an effective passenger railway, and all the challenges VIA Rail faces when running on shared tracks today will not magically disappear.
Unifor, the union which represents more than 2,000 VIA Rail employees across Canada, also responded to today’s announcement with deep concern, urging the government once again to keep VIA Rail in public hands.
Rather than more talk and lengthy studies, Canadians want to see action. The government has even earmarked funding for early works to prepare for HFR, but nothing has been done yet.