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Via Rail ready for high-speed trains: CEO

(Canwest News Service circulated the following story by Mike De Souza on June 8, 2009.)

OTTAWA — The head of Canada’s national passenger rail service says that the Crown corporation is ready to make a fast start on high speed rail service and is prepared to be a key player in any new project introduced by the federal government.

Via Rail Canada President and CEO Paul Côté said that ridership and operations have improved consistently over the past two decades, creating a base for a more advanced system. In the meantime, he said, new capital investments of almost $1 billion announced in 2007 are opening the door to faster service.

“The current investment of $900 million that the government has allowed us to do will help to continue to build that foundation, because that is the key, when the high speed systems comes into play, if the government goes ahead,” said Côté who appeared last week at parliamentary hearings about high speed rail. “The ridership of the franchise needs to be built to achieve that.”

Côté told the House of Commons Transport committee that the corporation has increased its ridership by 33 per cent and its revenues by 110 per cent since 1990 because of improvements to service and infrastructure.

“I can assure you that the people at Via Rail have the competence, the expertise and the motivation (to become a partner in a high speed rail project),” said Côté. “If we are allowed to do this and if the context permits, Via Rail will be able to show its expertise, quality and experience developed over all the years.”

Côté also said he welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of billions in new spending under a plan that is exploring nearly a dozen high-speed corridors in the U.S., including regions that would reach Montreal, Vancouver, Windsor and possibly Buffalo, near Toronto. He acknowledged, however, that Obama’s approach is different approach from that of federal and provincial governments in Canada.

The provincial governments in Quebec and Ontario, along with the federal government, are updating a 1995 study on high speed rail that estimated a line between Quebec City and Windsor could be built over 10 years at a cost of about $18 billion. A private consortium of firms is leading the study in consultation with representatives from the three governments and is expected to make recommendations in 2010.

“I know that there is some impatience that some people would like it to be faster,” Côté said. “But that’s the way the governments decided to go. So we will offer our assistance to make it happen and at the end we will have a very well documented storyline for high speed rail.”

Via Rail had developed a $3 to $4 billion plan several years ago to introduce an improved service with trains going at up to 200 km/h in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. The plan could have been implemented following an announcement of new infrastructure spending in the fall of 2003 by former prime minister Jean Chretien’s Liberal government. But former prime minister Paul Martin cancelled the spending, closing the door on a project which already had support from other partners such as CN and CP Rail.

Under its current plan, Via Rail will continue to use trains that can go up to 160 km/h on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor but which often face delays since they share tracks with freight trains that have priority.

An Alberta-based research institute said that a high-speed train between Calgary and Edmonton also could have a profound impact in that region.

“I think the important thing about the high-speed rail, and the interesting thing about it, is that it would fundamentally change that corridor,” said Teresa Watts, an associate from the Van Horne Institute, at the parliamentary hearings last week. “It would change it from a corridor with two centres that at one time were competing into a complement of one million people, effectively shrinking distance because of that link, to a unit of three million people. I think that it has to be linked to a broader vision of economic development. It’s not simply a transportation solution, but it is a provincial shaper of that corridor, which has been such a juggernaut of growth over the last decade.”

The Alberta government commissioned a feasibility study on the project that was due nearly two years ago, but it has not made it public.

Monday, June 8, 2009

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