Nova Scotia

Via Rail pitches cheaper commuter train for Halifax

Via Rail has pitched an unsolicited plan to bring commuter rail to Halifax for "significantly" less cost than a plan rejected last year as being too expensive.

'We are looking for potential partners,' says Coun. Tim Outhit

Via Rail is asking to negotiate with Halifax Regional Municipality about starting a commuter rail line. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

Via Rail has pitched an unsolicited proposal to bring commuter rail to Halifax for "significantly" less cost than a plan that was rejected last year as being too expensive.

The Halifax Regional Municipality has long debated operating a commuter train to relieve traffic. Most recently, a 2015 study said the rail option was too expensive.

That study, on which Via Rail based its proposal, focused on a line from Windsor Junction to downtown, with seven stops, running multiple times a day. 

"I've heard from residents throughout HRM that think this is a great idea to be investigated. There's tremendous public support for rail," transportation committee member Coun. Tim Outhit said Monday.

Outhit represents District 16 Bedford-Wentworth, through which the proposed line would run.

Public cost unclear

The cost in that earlier study pegged commuter rail between $36-62 million to start, with $8 million per year to operate.

There's no estimate as to how much the latest proposal could cost the municipality. Via Rail, an independent Crown corporation, is subsidized by the federal transportation department to run passenger trains across Canada.

The corporation declined an interview Monday, with a spokesperson saying by email it's looking to "assist and support" Halifax in offering commuter rail.

'Used to running railways'

The transportation committee will consider in-camera the "pre-proposal," as Outhit called it, on Thursday.

"These folks are used to running railways and of course, it would all integrate with our transit system," he said. "We'll just see what they have to offer and what price."

Outhit said he's heard from Via Rail the corporation could have it up and running within a year after negotiations are completed.

'A little bit off-guard'

The president of the union representing Halifax Transit bus drivers said he had concerns about the proposal. 

"I was caught a little bit off guard, to be honest. Typically transit likes to keep things in-house," said Ken Wilson, president of ATU Local 508. "I have more questions than answers at this point." 

He said he worries about the quality of existing rail infrastructure, the potential impact on bus driver jobs and added planning costs, given Halifax already approved a five-year transit plan that doesn't include rail. 

'All day, frequent service' needed

Scott Edgar, with the transportation advocacy group It's More Than Buses, says he'd want to see all-day, frequent service so people will trust the reliability and make taking the train a habit. 

"We'd want the train to be as cheap to operate as possible because that means it's going to be affordable to have the train operating more often," he said.

'Very good timing'

Despite the sparse details so far, Outhit says he's in favour of opening negotiations with Via Rail, especially after having "real concerns" with high costs detailed in previous studies. 

"It was just very good timing for this; we are looking for potential partners," Outhit said.

"We are looking to see if there's some way we can make rail viable, and Via Rail is looking to increase their presence in Atlantic Canada." 

Both the transportation committee and regional council would have to vote yes to open negotiations between the municipality and Via Rail.