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Canada seeks faster trains to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto from St. Lawrence River communities

James Morgan
The VIA Rail station in Alexandria, ONT. The town is on dedicated VIA tracks that are part of a Canadian government plan to increase the speed and frequency of passenger trains in eastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec.

Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot may have to add a verse to his classic Canadian Railroad Trilogy if federal plans for expanded high-frequency passenger rail service move forward.

Those plans include stops in communities fronting the St. Lawrence River, and to the north in Casselman and Alexandria, but municipal governments north of the Ottawa River in Argenteuil County, Quebec also want to be considered.

In July, the federal government announced it is taking the first steps in preparing for the procurement process to build a new high-frequency train service in the Toronto toQuébecCity corridor for VIA Rail, the federal agency that operates passenger rail service in Canada (similar to Amtrak in the U.S.).

During the summer, the government was engaging Indigenous groups and communities to obtain feedback on the project and holding discussions with the private sector to determine capacity and seek perspectives on the best possible delivery model. The government is planning to finalize the delivery model and launch the process to select a private partner this fall. The government has also been accelerating dialogue with partner freight railroads to negotiate dedicated routes in and out of city centers.

The High-Frequency Rail proposal involves building dedicated passenger tracks. Presently, VIA shares tracks with Canadian National Railways, a freight line, between Toronto and Montreal. In areas where the tracks are shared, trains often must wait on sidings and yield to freight trains. However, VIA has dedicated tracks from Brockville to Ottawa, and from Ottawa through Casselman and Alexandria to Les Coteau.

The federal government contends dedicated tracks would result in shorter travel times and faster trains that would reduce average trip times between Toronto and Ottawa by up to 90 minutes, more reliable on-time arrival performance up to 95% from a current average of 67%, more direct routes with improved connectivity between cities and to other modes of transportation, more frequent departures between cities, and a cleaner travel option using electrified technology.

Casselman Mayor Daniel Lafleur has asked VIA to increase passenger service to the municipality before, as Casselman has become a popular place to live for commuters to Ottawa and Montreal.

“The train does bring us quite a bit of travelers. It’s very good for Casselman.” According to Lafleur, the government wants to have high-frequency service in place by 2035. “We’d like to see it happen,” he said.

Quebec towns and county request study 

Meanwhile, municipal leaders on the north side of the Ottawa River want the federal government to consider bringing passenger rail service back to the railway line from Gatineau to Quebec City via Trois Rivieres. On August 11, Argenteuil County adopted a resolution requesting the federal and Quebec governments to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis on returning the line to passenger use.

According to the Argenteuil resolution, the railway line was built after the creation of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway (QMO & OR) in 1874, which was intended to serve cities and rural areas north of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. The line was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) in 1882 and passenger service on the north shore of the Ottawa River continued until 1981.

In 1994, CP announced it was discontinuing the line for freight service. In 1995, Argenteuil County persuaded the Quebec government to declare the Mirabel-Thurso rail corridor a special intervention zone under the Planning Act with the wish of maintaining an active rail link.

Since 1997, the line has been part of the Quebec-Gatineau Railway Company, which is owned by Genesee and Wyoming for freight use only.

In November 2018, Argenteuil County supported a declaration issued by a forum of the union of Quebec municipalities calling for the encouragement of passenger rail service as a viable alternative for the mobility of people, and to reduce the number of trucks on roads, reduce traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The resolution approved by Argenteuil County on Aug. 11 highlights that as of 2020 approximately 5 million people live in the north shore area of Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa within the province of Quebec, that integrated transportation is deficient to non-existent in the region and expanded passenger rail service would be an effective way of mitigating climate change.