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Via Rail CEO ‘cautiously optimistic’ Liberals will back $4B rail investment

Sunny Freeman Toronto Star - The head of Via Rail plans to convince the Liberal government that increases in ridership and revenue suggest a growing market for dedicated passenger rail, while worsening punctuality and longer trips reinforce the need.

CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said the Crown Corporation will submit a $4 billion dedicated track plan for the busy Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor to the new transport minister within months of the Nov. 4 announcement of the next federal cabinet.

The project — which has already attracted attention from potential investors at Canada’s big pension funds — would dramatically improve convenience and efficiency, he said.
“We’re satisfied that the case is built and now it’s just really a matter of waiting for the government to consider it,” Desjardins-Siciliano said Tuesday.

The project would see the company build, acquire and restore tracks to increase the number of daily departures from each city to 15 from the current six. That could convince more commuters to make trips between 120 kilometres and 500 kilometres by train. Currently, eight in 10 trips in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa triangle are made by car.

“We believe that service is so profitable — because it would go from about two million passengers per year to about seven million — that it could finance itself,” Desjardins-Siciliano said.

Via expects it will add 100,000 passengers in 2015, he said, crediting improved customer service and the addition of stops and cars to trains at busy times.

It is the first time since the 2008 financial crisis the money-losing company has seen a rise in both revenue and ridership.

Via’s passenger growth comes even as trains were punctual just 65 per cent of the time, falling from 86 per cent in 2010. The average trip length is also getting longer, the CEO said. A decade ago, travel time from Montreal to Toronto ran about four hours — now it takes more than five.

The problem, Desjardins-Siciliano said, is that Via passenger trains share tracks designed for and owned by freight train operators. As the amount of cargo shipped by rail rises, passenger trains experience more frequent delays.

Via trains, which can travel at speeds above 100 miles an hour, get stuck behind freight trains moving at less than half that speed. Aging and unstable infrastructure designed for the heavier, slower freight trains also inhibits high-speed travel.

Desjardins-Siciliano believes passenger rails would shave the commute between Montreal and Toronto to 3½ hours and the trip between Ottawa and Toronto to 2½ hours, saving more than an hour on each route. Via also estimates a dedicated passenger line would increase on-time performance to 95 per cent.

About $2 billion would be spent on infrastructure and signals, $1 billion on trains and stations and another $1 billion for electrification.

The new tracks could be operational in four to seven years, the CEO said, adding that the project would be profitable from day one and generate enough money to reduce Via’s overall deficit, creating a return for investors — whether they are public, private, or a combination of both.

“It should give comfort to the government that either it has the option to go to the market to get the money or that it could invest itself and keep all the return for itself,” Desjardins-Siciliano said.

He said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the Liberal government, which made transit investment one of its campaign pledges, will make the plan one of its infrastructure priorities.