Will HFR be fast or faster? Slow-moving government finally launches RFP

By Transport Action | Intercity Rail and Bus

Oct 14
High Speed train concept artwork by Bombardier

Federal transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez launched the Request for Proposals (RFP) for High Frequency Rail on Friday October 13, 2023. This is just the next step in the long and complex process – unnecessarily so, in Transport Action’s view – of procurement for High Frequency Rail, including effectively restarting the process in 2022 to add outsourced operations. Contrary to the initial proposal in 2015 which would have seen a private partner construct the new infrastructure segments for VIA Rail, the government now intends the selected private sector consortium to operate the new services, together with VIA Rail’s existing corridor services, if the project finally goes ahead.  

Following the RFQ phase, which closed on April 24, 2023, Transport Canada shortlisted three consortia to participate in the RFP:

  • Cadence (CDPQ Infra, AtkinsRéalis (formerly known as SNC-Lavalin), Systra Canada, Keolis Canada)
  • Intercity Rail Developers (Intercity Development Partners, Kilmer Transportation, First Rail Holdings, Jacobs, Hatch, CIMA+, First Group, RATP Dev Canada, Renfe Operadora)
  • QConnexiON Rail Partners (Fengate, John Laing, Bechtel, WSP Canada, Deutsche Bahn)

Note: Intercity Rail Developers previously included EllisDon Capital. According to the backgrounder released by Transport Canada, the consortium is in the process of replacing them as a team member.

These three consortia will have nine months to develop their proposals, for submission in summer 2024. This will be followed by a three-month evaluation period, with the consortium chosen to enter the co-development phase expected to be announced in late fall 2024.

The RFP requires each partner to present two solutions, one with a top speed of 200 km/h and one with higher top speeds. To construct 200 km/h segments, defined as the threshold of High Speed Rail by AREMA, requires full grade separation and that will be costly. Engineering to even higher speeds would require additional investment including realignment of curves and more intensive maintenance, but that incremental cost may be worthwhile.

In both cases, the project cost will be well in excess of the original HFR proposal, and the opening date would be in the mid-2030s, a decade later than originally envisaged.

Each consortium will receive a substantial stipend to support its work on the RFP, and in return VIA-HFR Inc., on behalf of the government of Canada, will be able to make use of good ideas from all the proposals, whomever they eventually select as the co-development partner.

Serving the cities of Peterborough and Trois-Rivières is a requirement, which means the alignment will remain close to the original HFR proposal, but the bidders will have to offer solutions to key questions like routing through downtown Montreal.

Transport Canada has not yet made a decision on Enhanced Train Control technology, which should be considered essential to safe high-speed operation, and is also yet to publish track standards for operation above 100 mph (160 km/h) or rolling stock standards for operation above 125 mph (200 km/h). Biding without that information will require considerable guesswork.

Whether HFR is really going to happen remains unclear, with the “investment decision by Canada,” which should have occurred in 2021 upon receipt of the Joint Project Office report, not now expected until at least part way through the co-development phase, probably after the next federal election. Hopefully all this work will not merely join EcoTrain and all the other previous High Speed Rail proposal in Canada’s extensive library of abortive attempts.

Transport Action wants the project to succeed, providing modern, reliable, and environmentally-friendly travel in the corridor, and is therefore deeply critical of all this delay and uncertainty; and we reject the government’s unsubstantiated assertion that a using private sector operator will add value for passengers or taxpayers.

Image: Concept artwork by Bombardier Transportation