Feds pledge to improve passenger rail in London region, but details remain down the track

Weeks after Ottawa unveiled it would begin a procurement process for a multi-billion-dollar high-frequency rail project linking Quebec City and Toronto, federal officials announced Wednesday that improvements are also in the works for the remainder of the busy transport corridor, stretching from Toronto into southwestern Ontario.

Details, however, on what improvements may be in store, when those improvements may be made, and how much the improvements may cost, are not yet known.

During a news conference Wednesday outside London’s VIA Rail Station, Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, said the federal government was working to determine how passenger rail in southwestern Ontario may be improved to provide better service.

Alghabra was joined outside the train station by London Mayor Ed Holder, Deputy Mayor Josh Morgan, and local MPs Peter Fragiskatos and Kate Young.

“We’ll be working with VIA Rail, the High-Frequency Rail Joint Project Office and the Canada Infrastructure Bank on this project,” he said, adding the province will also be part of the discussions, and that any rail enhancements in southwestern Ontario will be integrated with the Toronto-Quebec City plans.

“Our government knows that there’s demand for enhanced passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario… We know that improved passenger rail in this region would provide better options for travellers while also improving the economic growth of communities along the rail network.”

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Standing at the podium, Mayor Holder said he was excited about the transport minister’s announcement, saying it was “acknowledgement that London matters. And if London matters, that means that Sarnia and Windsor matter too, and that is exceptionally important.”

“London has the fourth busiest passenger rail terminal in all of Canada. (It) needs that support, needs that service. And I look forward to the time, sooner than later, that we’ll be able to make the same kinds of announcements in London that we have out of Toronto to Quebec City.”

The Toronto-Quebec City high-frequency project announced earlier this month would see passenger trains travel up to 200 km/h with reliability increasing to as much as 95 per cent from the current 67 per cent on the route, allowing for increased train frequency.

High-frequency rail was chosen over high-speed rail, where trains would travel much faster, as high-speed rail would be more costly and take longer to complete, the government said.

Officials were questioned Wednesday about the local announcement’s lack of detail, including a timeline, both for further information and the potential improvements, as well as cost. The timing of the announcement also comes amid rumours of a possible summer federal election.

“That will come with the further study that we are going to conduct right now,” Alghabra said.

“We want to get more reliable, more frequent, faster service. These are the questions that we’re asking at this exploration or this study right now: how do we get there? How do we get more frequent, more reliable and faster?… Once we get an answer to those questions, we can give you timelines and cost.”

London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos said the federal government had “planted a clear commitment” in improving rail service in the London area.

“Today we make clear, crystal clear to the people of the city, that London ought to see vastly improved rail service. The details need to be worked on, of course, but London could have been ignored. It was ignored by the previous government, but that’s another story I won’t get into,” he said.

“The key thing is that we’ve taken a turn here for the better. London is mentioned here in a very serious way and we’re going to see improved rail service as a result.”

It’s not the first announcement the region has seen in recent years relating to passenger rail infrastructure. The idea of high-speed rail in southern Ontario has been thrown around for years.

In 2018, former Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the province would invest billions in the creation of a high-speed rail line between London and Toronto that would later be extended to Windsor.

Premier Doug Ford’s government paused all capital funding for the proposed project in its budget the following year, saying it would instead explore ways to enhance existing train speeds and service levels.

Early last year the province unveiled a draft transportation plan for southwestern Ontario, which included plans to conduct a technical review of existing rail to “identify opportunities to enhance train speeds and service,” and to work with VIA Rail to potentially integrate service with GO Transit and with “freight partners on track access.”

The province also established a task force comprised of local southwestern Ontario mayors, including Mayor Holder, as well as chiefs and councillors from area First Nations.

“I’m confident that this federal government understands what the three issues are in terms of greater frequency, in terms of higher speed, in terms of reliability,” Mayor Holder said.

“I don’t think any reasonable taxpayer would say ‘build it and and be damned the cost.’ You need to understand exactly what the costs and what the implications are.”

Holder noted that one of the limitations when it came to improving current VIA Rail service was the fact that the vast majority of the Crown corporation’s passenger routes utilize track which is owned by other railway companies, forcing passenger trains to take a backseat to freight.

According to VIA Rail’s most recent annual report, the organization’s rail service had an on-time performance rate of 71 per cent in 2020, slightly higher than the year before, but roughly on-pair with 2018, 2017 and 2016.

“Does (it) involve building new track? I don’t know that. I’m not sure that the federal government knows that yet, but I think that’s certainly one of the pieces that they have to investigate,” Holder said.

“Will it mean that they have to put in better bedding on the tracks that are there if they don’t go to new track? Does it mean more rolling stock?… That helps on the frequency standpoint, but what good is the rolling stock if they have the same challenges that we have today?” he continued.

“I think it’s fair that they have to understand the cost implications and the people implications of what this means. I don’t think this becomes the never-ending story. The fact that the minister’s here makes a statement to me that it’s not intended to be the never-ending story.”

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Alghabra is expected to hold a similar news conference on Thursday in Windsor, according to a government advisory.

In addition to the recent Quebec City-Toronto news, Wednesday’s news conference also comes two months after southwestern Ontario was dealt a blow when Greyhound Canada said it was ending bus service across the country.

Several firms have jumped in to fill the void left by Greyhound’s departure, including Megabus and Rider Express.

— With files from Andrew Graham, Nick Westoll, and The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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