Budget 2024 funds VIA Rail Long-Distance Fleet

By Transport Action | Intercity Rail and Bus

Apr 20

Transport Action Canada is delighted by the federal government’s announcement of full funding to replace VIA Rail Canada’s heritage stainless steel fleet and life-expired Renaissance cars for long-distance and remotes services across Canada. We are also encouraged by the preamble to the announcement, which acknowledged the importance of services across Canada and the growing preference for sustainable modes of travel.

This a success for all the Transport Action members and supporters who have backed our fleet renewal advocacy campaigns over the past several years, including more than 9,000 signatures on an official petition to the House of Commons this spring, and for all the other organizations including Chambers of Commerce and municipalities who recognized the importance of this project and supported VIA Rail’s request for funding. 

Park car dome interior on a moonlit night

The budget states that “funding amounts are not being released to protect the government’s negotiating position for an upcoming procurement,” which is a wise approach to getting a good deal on a large train order, which will include more cars and locomotives than the new Quebec-Windsor corridor equipment order in 2018.

VIA Rail staff are also very pleased with this announcement. This order ensures that equipment will be available to provide long-distance and remote services for future generations and signals the government’s commitment to the future of the organization. Had funding not been forthcoming, VIA Rail’s management would certainly have had to make some very hard decisions, because the existing fleet is not expected to be able to operate beyond 2035, with some cars already being withdrawn or used to provide parts to keep others operating.

How soon will VIA Rail place the order?

A lot of pre-procurement work, including industry information days, has been completed by VIA Rail’s long-distance fleet project team over the last two years. Many details are being kept under wraps, both because funding was not yet certain and to ensure commercial competitiveness in bids. Vendors are also likely to offer their own interpretations of the conceptual designs. Now that funding is confirmed, an RFP should be issued very soon and the contract may be awarded in less than a year, as was the case with the corridor fleet procurement.

We expect that VIA Rail will seek to acquire enough equipment to replace the existing heritage stainless steel and Renaissance fleets, and restore capacity lost to attrition over the past decade. Adding accessibility features throughout the trains and more accessible bedrooms will also increase the number of cars required to provide the same passenger capacity.

Will there be domes?

A Skyline dome in the recently restored Winnipeg station trainshed

The forward-facing view of the landscape from the Park and Skyline domes has been one of the prized features of the Canadian, Skeena and Churchill trains, and its current absence of the Ocean is widely considered to be a significant downgrade in service — one we hope can be addressed even before the new fleet is delivered.  Whether the new fleet will replicate this key feature of the heritage fleet is one of the questions we heard frequently in feedback on our campaign for fleet renewal, and it is vital to enabling the new fleet to carry on fulfilling the dual roles of both an iconic experience and practical passenger service.

However, the stairs up to the domes and down to the passageways below are among the many impediments to accessibility in the heritage fleet, and the new fleet must be built to modern accessibility standards to ensure everyone can enjoy the trip. Single-level cars with raised domes require specialized structural engineering, so they can not be easily adapted from current designs for seated or overnight equipment.

Amtrak’s proposal to address in their new long-distance bilevel fleet to replace the Superliners involves an “accessible core” using elevators to reach the upper level, with an accessible path between bedrooms, washrooms, dining car, and panoramic lounge spaces. However, to fit train sheds at Toronto and Winnipeg stations, and to align with the high platforms at Montreal station, the new VIA Rail fleet is almost certain to be single level, with some combination of panoramic lounge spaces and domes with elevators to make them accessible.

Will the cars be built in Canada?

Intercity passenger rail equipment is cover by the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement and other free trade deals — even though funding for equipment in the USA often comes with “Buy America” strings attached — so there can’t be a requirement to assemble the equipment at a Canadian plant. However, Transport Action Canada hopes that the companies bidding on the contract for new transcontinental trains for Canada will consider the benefits of including plenty of Canadian content, and the availability of highly skilled labour to deliver the project in Canada. 

Will the trains be zero-emission?

New locomotives will be EPA Tier 4 compliant and therefore have much lower emissions than the F40 fleet they will be replacing, but due to the aversion of Canada’s freight railways to overhead electrification, will continue to operate on diesel in the immediate future.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodrigeuz caused concern when he speculated about delaying the order until new technologies were available at a meeting the transportation committee on March 21. However, switching for road and air to rail, and ensuring rail continues to be available, significantly reduces the carbon intensity of travel, so ordering new equipment now that can be refitted with zero-emission technologies at mid-life is the best approach.

Amtrak is ordering some battery-hybrid trains in its forthcoming Airo fleet, and the industry is rapidly working on zero-emission technologies, so it is also possible that some of the bidders for the contracts will offer options that save fuel and reduce emissions further.

Will this make rail travel more affordable?

The Canadian running through northern Ontario

Transport Action regularly hears complaints that passenger rail fares, especially on long-distance routes, are unaffordable to middle-income Canadians. Economy fares on Amtrak’s western routes are significantly lower than VIA Rail currently offers, and limited availability contributes to higher fares in sleeper class. We hope that the new fleet will help to address these concerns both by increasing availability, and by not having the high costs of maintenance, including reverse-engineering and custom-machining parts that are no longer available, for the legacy equipment.

The most important thing the government can do to bring do costs is to allow VIA Rail to operate more frequently, spreading fixed costs like stations over far more journeys made available to passengers, and to ensure the host railways allow trains to run on time to end costly delays and maximize the utilization Canada’s investment in the new fleet.

What about High Frequency Rail?

The HFR project also received a substantial sum of money in the budget, with $371 million announced in addition the $396.6 million provided in budget 2022. The new funding is from advancing design and development over six years, and Transport Action would like to see tangible progress toward delivering the project much sooner than that.

The government also announced plans to make VIA-HFR an “Agent of the Crown,” which ensure that any contracts it enters into for the project are obligations of Canada, in contrast to the ongoing arms-length status of VIA Rail.

What else has VIA Rail received funding for?

Work to improve network fluidity around Montreal and build a new multimodal hub at Dorval, ahead of the HFR project, which was funded with $491 million in budget 2021, is still progressing through the design phase. This complex project must satisfy all the passenger operators, both host railway, transit operators, and the airport authority, so the extra time devoted to planning is understandable.

The $212 million provided in 2022 for VIA Rail to maintain and upgrade stations and maintenance centres is yielding results, including repairs to the train shed and platforms in Winnipeg, station building repairs at Woodstock, many station platforms being rebuilt with tactile edging, and work currently in progress for the facilities to support the Venture fleet at Toronto Maintenance Centre.

Budget 2024 also provided $462M over 5 years, starting in 2024-25 for VIA Rail network operations.  This is below the level of operating funding in recent years and therefore requires clarification.

What wasn’t in this year’s budget?

While we are both happy and relieved by funding for the long-distance fleet, several railway and public transport related requests that didn’t make it into this year’s federal budget, including:

  • Reinstating rail service on Vancouver Island
  • Construction of the Lac-Mégantic bypass
  • Border crossing facilities for a VIA-Amtrak connection in Windsor
  • Advancing Enhanced Train Control
  • Restoring the Algoma region’s eligibility for the Remote Passenger Rail Program
  • Extending zero-rating for GST to harmonize train and motorcoach fares with transit

The federal government also did not bring the start date for the Permanent Public Transit Fund forward from 2026, as many municipalities had hoped, nor was match funding announced to order replacement of the trains for Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth line.

It is possible the announcements for some of these items will take place during the year; meanwhile the funding if the long-distance fleet, averting a major crisis, is deeply appreciated.