On Friday April 28th, 2023, VIA Rail Canada posted a Request for Information (RFI) for the Long Distance Regional and Remote Fleet Replacement Project, which is a significant step toward securing a suitable replacement for VIA’s legacy stainless-steel train fleet, originally built for Canadian Pacific in 1955, which has been the backbone of Canada’s long distance and remote services for generations. This follows a “Market Consultation,” which was launched in January 2022.
Transport Action has been calling for the renewal of VIA Rail’s equipment for decades, and once it became clear that repairs undertaken as part of VIA’s “Heritage Program,” initiated in 2018, would only buy limited life extension and that refitting the legacy fleet to meet current accessibility standards would not be feasible, we recommended funding for a new fleet be advanced urgently in our budget submission in 2021, protesting the utter insufficiency of having long six accessible cabins across the whole network.
The critical need to advance the procurement process was made clear by the engineering report received by VIA Rail from Hatch in fall 2022, recommending the unoccupied buffer cars be deployed to protect passengers in case the original structural strength of the equipment had been degraded by age and corrosion. VIA Rail and Transport Canada devised a program of testing and inspections to confirm the structural quality of the fleet. This included destructive compression testing of a sample of cars to confirm that it still comfortably exceeds the 800,000lb standard. Testing data was provided to Transport Canada at the end of March 2023 but has not yet been released. Although initial reports are encouraging, the risk of a further wear-related defects in this aging equipment leading to the complete suspension of passenger rail across western Canada and the Maritimes remains deeply concerning.
Before the testing program, VIA Rail had 154 stainless steel cars in use for long distance and remote service, plus baggage cars, three “Panorama” single-level dome cars acquired from BC Rail and restricted to use west of Edmonton, and six self-propelled Budd RDCs used on the Sudbury to White River route. VIA has a further 33 stainless steel HEP2 cars, rebuilt from cars acquired from Amtrak.
The procurement will also need to replace the Renaissance cars purchased from the UK in 2000 to supplement VIA Rail’s fleet, and which have primarily been used on the Ocean service to Halifax. Those cars were built by Metro-Cammell, starting in 1995, for the planned Nightstar services through the Channel Tunnel, so they are also reaching the end of their 30-year design life, and with wear accelerated by Canadian weather and track conditions, a significant portion of the 109 cars originally in service with VIA Rail have already been withdrawn, with mixed steel and Renaissance consists being used on the Ocean to ensure the continued provision of an accessible bedroom.
VIA’s F40 locomotive fleet will also need replacement within the next decade, and the RFI notably appears to include locomotives. We do not know at this stage whether consideration will be given to using multiple unit trains, a modern replacement for the RDCs, for any of the remote services, or to alternative fuels such as hydrogen.
Several major manufacturers have off-the-shelf designs for sleeping cars that could be acquired to begin replacing the fleet, but not for the dining, social, and panoramic cars that would be needed to deliver a worthy replacement for the legacy fleet and an enjoyable multi-day travel experience. New engineering will be needed to design those cars to North American standards and for modern accessibility, and that will extend the procurement cycle to seven or more years, so it is a great relief to see the process starting now. Hopefully, there will also be an opportunity to ensure design and assembly happens here in Canada.
Transport Action Canada believes that VIA Rail’s long distance and remote services are fundamentally passenger trains for Canadians, although tourist revenues help to support the backbone of our passenger network. A large share of the cost of these services is fixed, regardless of frequency and passenger numbers, so a frequent and reliable service, serving more passengers, is the route to better financial performance and greater socio-economic impact for our investment. If Transport Canada also makes the investments and policy charges needed to return the long distance trains to their historically shorter running times, this will also improve fleet utilization – with opportunities for savings in both capital costs and ongoing maintenance.
The size of the new order and any options attached to it – if it is funded and confirmed by the federal government – will determine the future of Canada’s long distance and remote services over the medium term, including whether there will be enough equipment to restore daily service on the Ocean and Canadian, which would make these services far more useful to Canadian travelling between cities along each route.
Therefore, a new order will hopefully be large enough to restore VIA’s fleet to full strength, able to operate a full schedule on all routes, with adequate spare equipment for maintenance rotations and service resilience. This should be around 342 cars, the equivalent of the original order placed by Canadian Pacific in the 1950s, the Renaissance equipment, and additional heritage equipment. We anticipate the cost for cars could be in the region of $1.5bn, based on the costs of recent orders for overnight trains in Europe, plus another $500 million for locomotives, although this may vary significantly based on technology choices.
Amtrak is also seeking to replace its long distance Superliner fleet and it is likely that manufacturers will seek to bid on both contracts, although it is not known whether the two railways will combine their procurement efforts to seek efficiencies and cost savings.
The 2023 federal budget did not include any funding toward the eventual replacement of the long distance fleet, but allocated $210 million over five years for VIA to “conduct maintenance on its trains on routes outside the Québec City–Windsor Corridor and to maintain levels of service across its network.” It’s not yet clear what this funding will actually cover, how much will be focused on the required repairs from the testing outcomes, or how much might be allocated to further refurbishment work, but it confirms to increasing cost for VIA’s maintenance teams to continue working miracles with aging equipment.