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Transport Minister Marc Garneau appears lukewarm on high speed train through Southwestern Ontario

LONDON FREE PRESS - Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau appeared to lean toward Via Rail’s dedicated rail plan over a provincially-backed high-speed train corridor through Southwestern Ontario when he attended an event in London Wednesday.

Speaking to the London Chamber of Commerce, Garneau said improvements to passenger rail service could come with a Via Rail plan to create a dedicated passenger rail track corridor in southern Ontario. Under the plan, Via would take over lines now used for freight traffic.

In an interview, Garneau said Via’s plan would allow for more frequent service, no interference from freight traffic and higher speeds than conventional trains, though well below the 200- to 300-km/h clip of high-speed rail.

“That’s the essence of the Via proposal and that’s what we are looking at seriously and if that is a workable solution, that will address the issue,” said Garneau.

The Via plan faces competition from a proposal for a high-speed rail corridor through southern Ontario. The province has appointed former federal cabinet minister David Collenette to head a study on the high-speed trains.

Asked whether he considered the Via plan more feasible, Garneau framed the high-speed train corridor as a provincial initiative that Ottawa would look at “with great interest.”

In answer to an audience question, Garneau cautioned that even the Via plan would need more study: “You need to do your homework. You need to make sure you are not overestimating how many people are going to take the train.”

Earlier this week, London West MP Kate Young, Garneau’s parliamentary assistant, announced a $2.55-million investment in improving the London and Sarnia Via stations.

But plans to add three more trains in the Toronto-Sarnia-Windsor corridor have stalled while Via negotiates access to rail lines owned by CN Rail and other companies.

Chamber manager Gerry Macartney said he’s skeptical Via will be able to get more rail access from the major companies.

Macartney has long maintained the high-speed rail corridor would be the best option for London, but said Via could be brought into the partnership to run the operation.

Garneau became famous as Canada’s first astronaut and later head of the Canadian Space Agency before his election as a Liberal MP in 2008.

In a day-long visit to London, he also meet with Mike Seabrook, chief executive of London International Airport, spoke to students at Arthur Ford elementary school and toured the ZTR Control Systems plant.