The House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities has launched a study entitled “Projects of High Frequency Rail Between Quebec City and Toronto, Between Calgary and Banff, and Between Calgary and Edmonton” to scrutinize the government’s policies for High Frequency Rail and delivery of the project.
Transport Action Canada was invited to participate in the hearings, and therefore President Terence Johnson traveled to Ottawa to appear in person as a witness at the first hearing on September 20, 2023.
VIA HFR – VIA TGF Inc. was represented by Martin Imbleau, recently appointed Chief Executive Officer, accompanied by Graeme Hampshire, Project Director, and Marc-Olivier Ranger, Corporate Secretary. Patrick Massicotte, President of the Chambre de commerce et d’industries de Trois-Rivières also appeared, noting that the city has been advocating for passenger rail for 40 years.
The addition of the two Alberta projects to the scope of the committee’s study is welcome and is likely to be addressed in more detail at future meetings.
The hearing was televised, and the recording can be viewed on ParlVU:
Transport Action supports HFR, but has significant concerns about the extended procurement timeline and outsourcing of operations, and has been critical of the cost escalation resulting from the government’s prevarication, including loss of access to the Mount Royal Tunnel. These concerns were presented to the committee:
[VIA Rail Canada President and CEO] Yves Desjardins-Siciliano and his colleagues launched extensive public consultations in 2016. The information provided to Transport Canada included a business plan, ridership, and infrastructure studies, all done by Systra. That was checked by international peers and a class 3 estimate was done.
HFR was decision-ready by summer of 2018, but our government hesitated. Had it followed its Crown corporation’s advice, HFR would already be in the final stages of construction today and would be in service by 2025.
Taylor Bachrach, MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, NDP transport critic and deputy chair of the committee, asked questions about the decision to outsource operations, and the impact it would have on VIA Rail’s services to the rest of Canada.
Responding to Members’ questions, Terence Johnson said:
If the cost of this project doubles, that means there are other projects that Canada cannot deliver to other parts of the country that don’t get a train service. That’s where we would say there is a real problem with what’s happening here… Remember that the original idea was that there would no longer be a need for a subsidy in the Quebec-Windsor corridor. In fact, Via Rail Canada would make a small surplus, which could be redirected to the rest of its services across Canada.
The original vision of HFR was to triage the corridor, build a strong financial foundation, build from it, be able to look at Calgary-Edmonton, be able to rebuild our long-distance services and be able to support our remote services to northern and indigenous communities. The surplus of this project—all of the benefits of this project—would be for Canadians and would flow back into making our network stronger.
That is our largest concern with this. By taking revenue risk and putting it on the table, it’s going to cost more, it’s going to be years before we even begin to lay any track and, at the end of the day, it’s going to cost Canadians more for the same train that we had a blueprint for in 2018 and could have got on with building.
Martin Imbleau, having been appointed a little over two weeks before the meeting, clearly articulated the role and mandate of VIA-HFR, explained the procurement and co-development process as it now stands, and reiterated the need for fast, reliable, and frequent passenger rail to strengthen Canada’s economy and reduce GHG emissions. Addressing the ongoing debate about top speed, Martin Imbleau clarified VIA-HFR’s approach and identified optimizing overall travel time as the primary goal:
Many people ask about speed—understandably so. We will reach high speeds where it’s feasible, safe and affordable. For information on the current procurement process, each team bidding on the project must provide two solutions. First, they must be able to achieve speeds up to 200 kilometres an hour—so faster than current services—but, second, bidders will propose services to go even faster.
The full testimony, questions and answers can also be read at: https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/TRAN/meeting-77/evidence