Work is well underway to try to make commuter rail service a reality for Halifax.

Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, president and CEO of Via Rail, told a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday the Crown corporation and municipality have been working on the plan, which he called "a conversation," for more than a year.

He said the idea is "very feasible."

Desjardins-Siciliano said it started when he approached the municipality to offer his help after reading in local media about people discussing the idea. It's one of two major plans Via would like to pursue for the Maritimes, said Desjardins-Siciliano.

Time to finalize a plan

He told reporters Via and the municipality need to finalize an operating plan that looks at capacity, traffic schedules and pricing, then bring it to CN, the railway owner, for approval. Desjardins-Siciliano said the work is headed in the right direction and he expected the owner would be open to the idea as long as there are no conflicts.

"The freight industry is important in Canada — it's $400 billion of goods that move by train in Canada, so we can't do anything that will impede that competitiveness."

Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

Via Rail president and CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano was the guest speaker at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday. (Mike Gorman/CBC)

The novel aspect of this idea is that it would use existing infrastructure, which should make it faster and cheaper to do if a plan can be approved, he said.

Daily regional return service

The other big effort for Via in the Maritimes is regularly daily regional service and Desjardins-Siciliano said such trips between Halifax and Moncton, N.B., would begin later this year.

Overall ridership and revenue are up since he came on board two years ago, said Desjardins-Siciliano, and the key to more improvements is getting more people to ride the train. To that end, Via is preparing a $4-billion plan to improve service in the corridor from Quebec to Ontario, where 90 per cent of the ridership and revenue reside.

Making that section of Via's service profitable means the organization is stronger overall and more self-sustaining, which would translate to more revenue to help less profitable elements of the service, said Desjardins-Siciliano.

Trickle-down benefits

If Via were to be compared to a shopping mall, he said, the corridor is the anchor tenant.

"You need that big tenant that brings in people that will then use the services and products of the smaller tenants of the mall," he said.

"If we have to always go cap in hand to government to get them to subsidize services that are not growing — at some point it's going to end."