TORONTO — Via Rail was in talks with Quebec’s pension fund about building a dedicated set of passenger tracks between Quebec City and Toronto, but that fell apart after the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec proposed a $5.5-billion commuter line for Montreal instead.
Via chief executive Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said the development is a mixed blessing, as it shows that there’s investor appetite for rail projects but appears to eliminate a major contender for his own plan.
“The Caisse announcement is somewhat bittersweet,” Desjardins-Siciliano said in an interview Wednesday at Via’s offices near Toronto’s Union Station.
“On the one hand, it supports our suggestion; on the other hand, their people will now be focused on delivering a very aggressive project on a very aggressive timeline, so it makes our project less of a possibility for them.”
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The Caisse did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the two years since he was appointed CEO of the Crown corporation, Desjardins-Siciliano has been a vocal advocate of dedicated tracks on the busy Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, which would allow for more frequent and faster train service.
Currently, Via operates on rail lines owned by Canadian National Railway Co., which often results in delays as slower, heavier freight trains take priority over lighter, faster passenger trains.
In 2015, Via’s trains were on time 71 per cent of the time, a significant deterioration from 85 per cent in 2011.
Desjardins-Siciliano doesn’t blame CN for this, but says it’s simply the reality of “running incompatible services on shared infrastructure.”
The choice is stark, according to Via. In its five-year corporate plan, tabled in the House of Commons last week, the railway said it “can no longer function within its existing framework.” A combination of aging trains and shared infrastructure is hurting service, which will result in reduced ridership and greater operating deficits.
“Left unchanged, Via Rail will become more costly and less relevant to Canadians,” the report says. “Ultimately, it will be unable to fulfill its mandate.”
Left unchanged, Via Rail will become more costly and less relevant to Canadians.
As a solution, Desjardins-Siciliano has been pitching a public-private partnership that would see the federal government team up with a major pension fund to build a dedicated track and replace Via’s aging fleet, ideally with electric trains.
Via says it needs approximately $4 billion to do this — $2 billion to build the track and another $2 billion to procure electric cars and the grid needed to run them.
In its March budget, the Liberal government only pledged $11 million to Via for pre-procurement work and a study of the dedicated-track proposal, but Desjardins-Siciliano said it’s a good start.
“We’re very encouraged because a new government, after five months in power, recognizes both the urgency of the fleet renewal as well as the importance of modernizing the business as a whole,” he said.
Via will bring a finalized proposal to Ottawa by the end of this year, and Desjardins-Siciliano is hopeful that there will be more funding in next year’s budget.
In the meantime, Via is getting plenty of interest from pension funds, and the Caisse’s recent proposal — to invest $3 billion in a light-rail network in Montreal, with the government funding the remaining $2.5 billion — proves that it’s viable, he said.
“There are Canadian funds interested and there are foreign funds interested as well,” he said.
“We’re getting unsolicited approaches by parties who want to discuss this project and see how they could be involved in it.”