More encouraging is what the Passenger Rail authorities would like to accomplish with the Toronto - Ottawa - Montreal service.
[The authority] won a significant victory to advance its plan to build a new high-performance passenger-only rail line between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. The Canada Infrastructure Bank’s decision last week to spend $71 million CAD to begin engineering and economic analysis on the project, while remaining open to helping fund its construction provided that the analysis returns favorable results, gives VIA [the authority -- ed.] confidence that it can attract private investment to help the government-owned corporation complete the project.In fact, given the state to which Passenger Rail has fallen, as well as the nature of the high-density corridors in North America, including the Richmond to Portland stomping grounds of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor services, Free Rein to 110 with contemporary diesel trains is the more sensible way to start.
Keep in mind that the proposed line is not world-class high-speed rail — it would be a conventional line allowing conventional equipment to operate at up to 110 mph with numerous grade crossings. Nevertheless, it would cut travel times by up to one third less than current schedules and offer much greater reliability by not being shared with freight. This milestone, along with Virgin Trains USA’s expansion to Orlando proceeding apace, proves that modern passenger rail projects in North America don’t have to be grade-separated bullet trains or use some flashy new technology like maglev or hyperloop in order to attract private-sector participation and deliver tremendous utility to the traveling public and to local and regional economies.
If VIA can overcome the hurdles of political will and resistance on the part of its host railroad Canadian National, and if its urban regions continue to develop and modernize rail transit, Ontario’ populous southeast and southwest regions would be well-positioned to continue providing a high quality of life to their growing populations as energy and other resources inevitably become scarcer with climate change and growing global demand. Many locales stateside could learn from this success.
The plan to separate passenger and freight trains between Montreal and Toronto makes sense on paper. It's also a way to provide for even faster running later, if the tracks are surveyed and laid out with a subsequent installation of electrified running in mind.
In practice, though, Bill Stephens, who is also a Trains columnist, has doubts.
There’s much to like in VIA’s so-called high frequency rail plan. Transit times on the new corridor, VIA says, would be 25% faster than the current schedules, which cover Toronto-Montreal in about 5 hours. The new corridor would permit 110 mph operation, up from the current maximum of 100 on some sections of CN. VIA could provide more frequent service without begging CN for permission to run additional trains. And VIA projects 95% on-time performance on its own tracks.Perhaps a few overpasses in the right places (would you believe one will be built in the area of Tower A-2 in Chicago?) might help. That, and people who know how to move trains.
But the whole plan falls down in the busy terminal areas in and around Toronto and Montreal. That’s where VIA’s trains would still have to negotiate trackage thick with freight and commuter traffic.
Transport Canada’s solution to this problem is laughable. “VIA Rail Canada would work with track owners to conclude necessary agreements and ensure that both freight and passenger operations can go smoothly,” a spokeswoman says.
VIA has said that passenger trains and freight trains are simply incompatible. What’s required, the thinking goes, is separate routes for passenger and freight. That’s never been true. If it were, Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains would not have clocked 96% reliability last year on Canadian Pacific trackage between Chicago and Milwaukee.Yes, the current seven Hiawatha trips a day are generally reliable (although on occasion a rake misses an entire trip: if it doesn't run at all, it can't be late?), but getting back to ten trips is proving to be difficult, and separate passenger and freight routes well might be the way to go. (Stay tuned. I'm working on that one.) Yes, it's on public officials to sell internal improvements: we have not-in-my-back-yard sentiments in part as a reaction to the excesses of eminent domain over the years. The point of internal improvements, though, is to introduce trade-tested betterments, that is to say, Pareto improvements.
Keeping passenger and freight trains on time takes a combination of operational discipline, the right track capacity, and a willingness to make it work. CN takes pride in its operational discipline, and executives say the Eastern portion of the railroad, between Chicago and Halifax, is underutilized. What’s missing, it seems, is a willingness to expedite VIA trains.
VIA needs a cooperative host railroad more than it needs a new route that would bypass intermediate population centers, face opposition from the not-in-my-backyard crowd, take years to build, and in the end would still have to rely on shared trackage in key areas.
Perhaps we begin by suggesting that provincial transportation authorities run the assets they have as businesses. Here's a question for discussion: what are the current tolls on the Queen's Expressways?