Via Rail is looking at building a dedicated passenger rail network in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor to improve its on-time performance and boost ridership, says the company's CEO.
"It's a definite possibility, meaning that we are acquiring track as it becomes available in the corridor," Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said in an interview with CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.
Desjardins-Siciliano, named as president and CEO of Via Rail Canada last spring, said he believes he can raise private capital to fund the purchase of track.
He admits that 98 per cent of Via's trains run on someone else's track, which means that passenger trains take second place to long, slow freight trains.
Freight railways CN and CP are carrying more oil, more grain and more goods of every kind across Canada, which means there's more likelihood of freight trains needing the rails.
"When they do, then the passenger train takes the side track and waits for the freight train to get along. So that congestion issue is what stands in way of greater penetration of train travel for passengers and increasing ridership, he said.
"That is why we are advocating looking into building a dedicated track network."
On-time performance fell in 2014
Via's on-time performance declined last year to about 77 per cent because of increased freight traffic, Desjardins-Siciliano said. His goal is to improve that performance to attract more passengers as trains currently run at about 60 per cent capacity.
Desjardins-Siciliano said he believes there is an appetite in Canada for more rail travel, both from younger passengers who welcome the opportunity to relax in an environment where they can use social media and older travellers who would prefer not to drive.
There is also an opening for Via to provide more regional service around Toronto and Montreal where commuters are frustrated by congested highways, he said.
He points to an investment of private money, including Canadian pension funds, in the track for the U.K. to France Chunnel as proof that there is interest in rail infrastructure among private investors.
Currently, the federal government underwrites Via's operating costs to the tune of $350 million a year.
Desjardins-Siciliano said the taxpayer has paid enough and he believes the passenger rail service can make money in the Windsor to Quebec corridor, with the help of a private-sector upgrade.
He estimates upwards of $3.5 billion of investment in track alone would be necessary to carry Via's current diesel engines, which can go about 100 mph (160 kph). A high-speed network would be at least three times as expensive, so that's not in the cards, he said.
"So I think the objective, my objective obviously, would be to reduce the government subsidy to where it's a pure public service," he said.
That would mean the Ontario to Quebec network would pay for itself and provide a return to investors, while service to remote locations, such as Churchill, Man., White River, Ont., and Prince Rupert, B.C., would continue to need a subsidy.