London

Ottawa to explore better passenger rail service in southwestern Ontario

The southwestern Ontario rail corridor that links London and Windsor to Toronto will again be the subject of a study as Ottawa commits to "exploring opportunities" for improving service. 

Earlier this month, Ottawa announced new high-frequency rail line connecting Toronto and Quebec City

Peter Fragiskatos, Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre, speaks at the city's VIA Rail station on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Kate Dubinski/ CBC News)

The southwestern Ontario rail corridor that links London and Windsor to Toronto will again be the subject of a study as Ottawa commits to "exploring opportunities" for improving service. 

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra was in London, Ont., Wednesday at the VIA Rail station announcing the federal government's commitment to improving intercity passenger rail service. He fell short of making a financial commitment or detailing a plan.

"I know how frustrating it is for the people of London, who have heard about the studies and the work that is needed, but let me just say, we are talking about a significant investment of taxpayers' money for this infrastructure...It sounds like talk but it's not, it's action," Alghabra said.

Earlier this month, Ottawa announced a new high-frequency rail line connecting Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

There is no completion date on that project but the 2021 budget did pledge $491.2 million over six years to VIA Rail Canada for infrastructure investments. 

"We started with the busiest corridor and I'm here to tell you that the next step is the second-busiest corridor," Alghabra said in London.

"There's a strong appetite for enhanced passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario."

The promise of high-speed rail is not new in southwestern Ontario. In 2017, former federal transportation minister David Collenette studied the pros and cons of high-speed rail for the then-Liberal provincial government. 

He concluded it was a good investment and the province committed $11-billion to building it. That project was disbanded the following year when the Conservative government was elected. 

Local officials at Tuesday's federal announcement say they were happy with a commitment from the federal government. 

"We've planted a clear commitment. Today, we make crystal clear to the people of this city that London ought to see vastly improved rail service. Now the details need to be worked on, of course, but London could have been ignored...We've taken a turn here for the better," said London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos. 

City officials welcome announcement

VIA passengers waiting to take the train from London to Windsor on July 21, 2021. (Kate Dubinski/ CBC News)

London Mayor Ed Holder said he expects different levels of government to deliver on their promises. 

"I don't think this becomes the never-ending story, I think the minister being here today makes a statement. No taxpayer would expect any government to be able to make the kind of billions of dollars that will be required unless they understand what they're undertaking," Holder said.

"I don't think any reasonable taxpayer would say, 'Build it and be damned the cost.' We need to know what the costs and the implications are."

Part of the issue is that VIA trains run on CN tracks that push passenger service to the sidelines when freight is coming through, Holder said, caling today's announcement "a legitimate first step."

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