The federal government has slowed the timeline on a faster passenger railway set to stretch from Toronto to Quebec City.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Thursday he hopes the high-frequency rail line will be running by the mid-2030s — rather than the early 2030s, which he projected as recently as March.
“The forecast is that I’d love to see the service in operation in mid-2030s. That is where we expect the service to be ready,” he told reporters, with construction to kick off “a few years from now.”
“But it is a lengthy process, I acknowledge that. But this is the best way to do it, because we want to do it right.” Alghabra said.
At a news conference at the Montreal Central Station, the minister announced a request for proposals from three consortiums that have made it onto a short list, the latest step in an enterprise announced in July 2021.
That year Alghabra pegged the likely cost at between $6 billion and $12 billion. But on Thursday, he declined to put a rough price tag on the undertaking, saying that the government will first have to assess the proposals.
“While I may have a sense for the overall number, I also wouldn’t want to give Canadians an inaccurate number that later on I have to change,” he said.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, the Liberals’ Quebec lieutenant, said a fully high-speed rail corridor — called for by some politicians in that province — that hits peaks of up to 300 km/h is not feasible, given the number of stops the trains will make.
A high-speed rail corridor could require hundreds of millions of dollars on construction of underpasses alone, since the zippy lines could not host road crossings, said Vincent Robitaille, Transport Canada’s assistant deputy minister of high-frequency rail. Other infrastructure such as uninterrupted fencing would also be necessary, on top of buy-in from a bevy of local and provincial governments.
Topping out at about 200 km/h, the Via Rail trains will run along mostly brand new track on land owned largely by Canada’s two rail giants, CN and CP, he said.
“We cannot add more trains right now” — hence the need for more frequent, faster rail service — Robitaille said. “The freight trains make the (passenger) trains slower. But it also limits the number of trains you can have.”
The passenger cars are expected to pass through Montreal, Trois-Rivières and other Quebec and Ontario municipalities that sit between Toronto and Quebec City, running at up to 200 km/h. The corridor would also include stops in Ottawa and Peterborough.
The three consortiums selected to submit proposals are: Cadence, which includes SNC-Lavalin and its largest investor, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which manages the province’s public pension fund; Intercity Rail Developers, which includes Hatch and EllisDon; and QConnexiON Rail Partners, which includes WSP Canada and Toronto-based infrastructure investor Fengate.
Alghabra said he hopes to select a partner next summer.