Liberals announce plans for new 'high frequency' rail lines from Toronto to Quebec City

The federal government is moving forward with a plan to build an all-new high frequency rail line connecting Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

Passenger and freight trains would no longer share tracks along most of the route

VIA Rail says that running passenger trains on dedicated lines, rather than on shared tracks with freight trains, would reduce travel times and make the service more reliable. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is moving forward with a plan to build an all-new high frequency rail line connecting Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

The proposed lines would reduce travel times between the cities and make trains more reliable, according to plans for the project.

Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra announced the plan to passengers onboard a VIA Rail train travelling from Toronto to Montreal on Monday.

"It will increase frequency for passengers like yourself and transform the connection between these cities," Alghabra told passengers over the train's PA system.

Trains on the proposed line would run at higher speeds than are currently possible. The government is not describing the project as "high speed" rail, however, since vehicles would still fall short of the speeds typically associated with high speed rail networks in Europe and Asia.

At a subsequent news conference in Quebec City on Tuesday, Alghabra said the government plans to launch the procurement process in the fall after consulting with Indigenous communities and the private sector. The government will also engage with partner railways to negotiate dedicated routes in and out of city centres.

"Up to 90 per cent of the new service would run on electricity, contributing to a green economy and creating good jobs," Alghabra said.

The Liberal government has been examining the possibility of high frequency rail along the Toronto-Quebec City corridor since at least 2019, when it launched a special office to work on the project.

Ottawa announced more funding for the project in its recent 2021 budget, headlined by a pledge of $491.2 million over six years to VIA Rail Canada for infrastructure investments.

The budget does not suggest a completion date for the project.

WATCH: Transport minister lays out next steps for Via Rail expansion

Transport minister lays out next steps for Via Rail expansion.

1 year ago
Duration 1:35
Omar Alghabra spoke to reporters Tuesday in Quebec City's historic train station

VIA Rail says reliability, speed and frequency would improve

According to VIA Rail, a high frequency rail line operating on dedicated tracks would cut travel times by 25 per cent and improve on-time performance by 95 per cent.

Trains on the line would travel at speeds of up to 177-200 km/h, according to a government news release. The government says that could reduce travel times by up to 90 minutes on some routes, such as Ottawa to Toronto.

Those speeds are faster than the current maximum of approximately 160 km/h for VIA Rail trains. Modern high speed rail lines are capable of at least 250 km/h.

(Rob Easton/CBC News)

VIA Rail says the current congestion and irregular timing of trains is due to passenger and freight trains often using the same tracks.

Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba and a former director of the Transport Institute, said that moving passenger trains onto dedicated lines is a reasonable and achievable project.

"Anything that makes the service more frequent and faster is going to attract passengers," Prentice said. "We've got to get more cars off the road and we've got to stop using so many airplanes."

Prentice said construction of a new line based on existing technology could be completed within three to four years, and at a much lower cost than a true high-speed line.

The dedicated line proposed by VIA Rail includes a new line connecting Toronto to Ottawa, and another line connecting Montreal to Quebec City. 

Federal projections estimate the amount of trips taken by rail in the Toronto to Quebec City corridor would more than triple, from 4.8 million in 2019 to a projected 17 million by 2059. 

The latest map of the project still has passenger trains running on shared tracks between the station in Les Coteaux, Que., and Montreal.

Announcement set for possible battleground riding

Alghabra may provide further details about the proposed line during a news conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Trois-Rivières, Que.

Trois-Rivières is one of the proposed stations on the new line connecting Montreal to Quebec City.

The city is expected to be a battleground riding in the next federal election, since Bloc Québécois MP Louise Charbonneau announced she will not seek re-election. Trois-Rivières has not had a Liberal MP since 1984.

Stephanie Kusie, the Conservatives' shadow minister for transport, described the news as "merely a re-hashed announcement" of funding outlined in the 2021 budget for a project which still does not have a target date for completion.

Kusie said the plan creates "no real progress towards providing this much needed service."

The previous Ontario Liberal government proposed a high speed rail line between Toronto and Windsor in 2018, featuring trains that would have travelled at speeds of up to 250 km/h. That government was defeated just months after announcing those plans and the project has not been revived.


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