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VIA Rail Canada Locked in the Past

VIA Rail passenger car -photo copyright Paul Langan

One thing is constant in Canada - we never really move forward to having a truly modern passenger rail system. Periodically the government invests in rolling stock for VIA Rail but then it is back to the ‘same old, same old’.  That is: slow trains, high fare prices, and the absence of safety requirements that are mandatory in other countries.

The federal government has recently given money ($1billion plus) to VIA Rail to update their aging fleet of passenger rail vehicles. Just like the previous 2002-2003 federal government VIA Rail Renaissance Funding, this funding is heralded as modernizing VIA Rail service.  It remains to be seen if Canada can ever have a modern passenger rail system.

The federal infrastructure bank is ready to invest in big infrastructure programs. Should they invest in VIA Rail’s flawed High Frequency Rail (HFR) plan?

HFR (High Frequency Rail)

I have written extensively about this plan by VIA Rail to use an abandoned CP (Ontario-Quebec Railway) rail corridor through sparsely populated areas to improve trip times. Sadly, the trip times between Toronto-Montreal via Ottawa will not be significantly reduced. The same issues persist: slow trains, numerous level crossings, and higher prices. Somehow VIA Rail thinks this is the answer.

The former VIA Rail CEO, lawyer Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, was well known for his anti- high speed rail views. He spoke out against it a number of times to the media. He was a champion for VIA’s HFR project. The new VIA Rail CEO, lawyer Cynthia Garneau, is continuing her support for HFR. Her views on high speed rail are unknown.

Cultural Crisis

The mindset that we can use the existing track or abandoned track for traditional speed trains and bring back the perceived good old days of when people actually travelled by train is a fable. Rehashing old ideas to solve modern problems simply does not work. We are in a cultural crisis and we need innovative solutions.

Down in Southwestern Ontario the same problem exists with the idea of High Performance Rail (HPR) that has been suggested as a plan to revive VIA Rail. Back to the 1960s we go, as this plan offers nothing new. It leaves us with slow trains on existing tracks with VIA Rail’s high prices, numerous level crossings, and a lack of the most up-to-date safety requirements.

Ironically, writer H.G. Wells discussed this very real problem in his 1902 speech to the Royal Institute in London. The speech was entitled ”The Discovery of the Future”. Mr. Wells critiqued how people would use the past to justify the present without looking to the future for solutions. One hundred and eighteen years later and Canada is locked in a cultural crisis regarding passenger rail service in this country.

How long can we look at the past and present as the only way to think about how to improve passenger rail service in this country? The future is high speed rail, and many other countries have figured this out. When will Canada?

Paul Langan
President High Speed Rail Canada


  1. I would like to comment that in 1965 in the Oct timetable CN came out with the first nonstop rapido train from Toronto to Montreal in 3 hours and 59 minutes. Now VIA rail has the fastest train the same distance in 4 hours and 40 minutes. In 1996 the line from Windsor to Toronto was upgraded from Windsor 80 mph to 85 mph. When it left Windor at 6 am and arrived in Toronto at 10:04 am now the same train has to leave at 5:30 am. In Europe the trains are so fast it would get from Windsor to Toronto they would take a 1/2 hour. You need to write to the MP and write to other Canadians and tell them that we need faster trains and no more highways. That is the leading cause of global warming.

    1. The principal cause for the gradual lengthening of trip times between our cities located in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor can be directly attributed to having to share tracks owned by freight companies such as CN and CP.

      Travel times for our passenger trains would therefore significantly improve using dedicated tracks while simultaneously providing vastly more reliability than at present!.

      Via Rail management realized this several years ago and ultimately decided that promoting high frequency rail running on dedicated tracks would ultimately provide a superior passenger rail experience to the traveling public.

      We have reached the point where Via Rail's HFR project has just recently been approved by the federal government following the Prime Minister's mandate letter addressed to our Minister of Transportation, Mr. Marc Garneau, ordering him to 'create' this HFR project in consultation with the Minister of Infrastructure.

      The above-mentioned announcement followed the appointment less than six month ago of Mr. Vernon Barker, a passenger rail transportation project specialist from the UK, as Project Manager of Via Rail's HFR!

      This appointment followed the decision to purchase 32 new Siemens Charger dual-mode train sets with a maximum speed capability of over 200 kph or 125 mph in December, 2018.

      As demonstrated above, generational steps are actually being taken by our federal government to improve passenger rail in Canada, and Canadians should expect an announcement by Via Rail describing the precise HFR route along with the station stops chosen by March 31, 2020 at the latest; and lastly followed by the full completion of the engineering, pre-procurement and consultation phase no later than on March 31, 2021, whereby construction should indeed take place shortly thereafter!

      Once HFR becomes fully operational in about 4-5 years, Canadians will finally get to experience affordable, frequent, and faster high-quality passenger rail similar to what's available in Europe!

      Passenger rail proponents are looking forward for that day to occur!

      Via Rail's high frequency rail project will offer most of the benefits of HSR without the high price tag that has dissuaded our leaders from given the green light to any of the previous high speed rail proposals in the past 30 or more years!

      The possibility for future upgrades to HSR will then exist and at much lower cost rather than having to proceed with a project of this magnitude from scratch!

      With Kind Regards,

      Marc Lemieux


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