Giving VIA’s trains a route of their own on which to gallop at 110 mph or faster without freight interference and without investing further in privately-owned railway infrastructure sounds ideal. It’s especially compelling when you face the fact that VIA’s federal masters aren’t likely to fund a multi-billion-dollar, electrified high-speed rail (HSR) plan. We’ve been down that pathway too many times over the last 40 years and the results have always negative.Where the plan starts running into trouble is in building a lot of the passenger-only tracks from scratch.
So, as a means of decreasing its end-to-end running times and increasing both frequency and on-time performance in its Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto core market, VIA’s corporate view is that it needs to get off CN’s busy Kingston Subdivision and add substantially to the limited amount of track it already owns at a more reasonable cost than HSR.
Westbound from Montreal Central Station, the proposed HFR route holds no surprises and no need for concern. VIA would continue to use CN’s Montreal and Kingston subdivisions to reach the eastern end of its own ex-CN track just north of Coteau, Quebec. With upgrading, VIA’s former CN Alexandria, Beachburg and Smiths Falls subdivisions would provide the HFR route as far as Smiths Falls. It’s at this point that the whole idea starts to go wonky.Wouldn't it be simpler, as was the case with the creation of Conrail, to keep the passenger trains on the current trackage, upgrading it for faster running, and creating a freight main out of the underutilized or abandoned trackage?
Branching off the current Ottawa-Brockville-Toronto route, VIA’s HFR trains would use a new track connection to reach CP’s Montreal-Toronto freight main line and then parallel it for 15.5 miles to Glen Tay. Here, the new VIA line would veer off on the abandoned portion of the CP Havelock Subdivision, with the 92 miles of missing track rebuilt on what is now a segment of the Trans-Canada Trail. From Havelock west, VIA’s tracks would be on CP freight rights-of-way through Peterborough to Leaside, then down the Don Valley to Union Station over the dormant ex-CP line owned by Metrolinx.
In total, the HFR project would consist of 366 route miles, of which more than 200 miles would be new to VIA and 107 miles would be track previously purchased from CN. Excluding motive power and rolling stock, VIA originally pegged the cost at $2 billion, which it expects private-sector investors to fund. This funding is predicated on VIA’s assertion that the HFR service would be profitable enough to deliver a double-digit return on investment for its private-sector partners.
VIA maintains this plan would attract about eight million passengers annually, which is more than three times the ridership handled in 2014 on the individual routes that form the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle. The expectation of a ridership increase of this magnitude is highly optimistic, especially given the level of air, bus and automotive competition throughout the Quebec-Windsor Corridor.
On the other hand, the Canadian proposal correctly sees the value of running existing trains at speeds they are currently capable of attaining.
As for the HFR trainsets, VIA estimates these would cost $1 billion and would be publicly funded. They would only be ordered after the dedicated track plan is locked down because, according to VIA, the trains have to be “fitted” carefully to the new infrastructure. This ignores the fact that Amtrak already operates several conventional, diesel-hauled trains at 110 mph and that VIA’s LRC rolling stock is, in fact, designed for 125-mph service.Perhaps, though, the talking will be a preface to action.