CORNWALL – A recent announcement by VIA Rail Canada for new and improved high-frequency passenger rail service has local member of Parliament Eric Duncan concerned about the future of passenger service along the St. Lawrence River.
On July 6, federal Minister of Transportation Omar Alghabra announced a new high-frequency rail service between Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City on a dedicated rail route. The new route will send more passenger trains between Toronto and Ottawa through a new route stopping at Peterborough.
The announcement by the federal government is concerning to Duncan, as VIA has not said what the service impact will be in the existing corridor. The lack of information has Duncan concerned.
“[The announcement] is not saying how many trains per day. They’re not saying if its high frequency as well,” he said. “For every piece of good news they are giving along this new route, they need to reassure communities along the 401 corridor that they are not going to be forgotten, and that the service will be better for them too. We haven’t heard either.”
Pre-pandemic, five out of six passenger trains in each direction stopped in Cornwall per day. During pandemic-related service reductions, VIA Rail operates three trains in each direction per day, with all trains stopping in Cornwall.
In the past five years, the overall number of trains on that VIA line dropped from seven to six trains per direction daily. Cornwall has not seen a reduction in the number of stops though.
Just as the number of stops per day is a concern for Duncan, so is the time of day trains arrive and depart.
“We’ve see challenges with arrival and departure times, particularly departures to Toronto. You leave Cornwall at 7 or 8 in the morning and you’re in Toronto at noon,” he explained. “You have to catch return trip the same day and the timing is not very well done.”
As Cornwall will no longer be part of the main service route, once the HFR project is complete, passengers travelling to Toronto will have to make some sort of a transfer at Kingston, which will be a new regional hub. The lack of details or a commitment to maintain existing service to this area is another concern of the MP.
“The connection is in Kingston. Are you going to sit there for an hour, an hour-and-a-half before you catch the next train? That’s not making service better,” Duncan explained. “The government is putting a lot of effort in touting the benefits of how good this is going to be. If the service is going to be better in Cornwall, why aren’t they out there promoting it or giving the details.”
Responding to questions from The Leader, the company said that the HFR plan will connect more communities and have more train departures, improved schedules, and better on-time performance.
“VIA Rail will still continue to operate all its existing routes,” the company said. “Residents along the Toronto-Québec City cooridor would see improved scheduling and service tailored to their community’s needs.”
The company offered no further details as “this transformed service will be developed and outlined as we continue analyzing the needs of the impacted communities.”
According to the company, the Cornwall station saw just under a 30 per cent increase in ridership between 2014 and 2019. Pre-pandemic, 56,800 people boarded or disembarked from VIA trains in Cornwall in 2019.
The $4 billion HFR project is in addition to nearly $1 billion in new equipment that was ordered in 2018 and is due to arrive in 2021-22. This iteration of HFR is the latest proposal for high-speed electrified rail service in Canada. Since the early 1970s there have been proposals for large-scale electrification projects for passenger rail between Toronto and Montréal.
There are no timelines available for when the VIA HFR project will begin or when service will be operational. The company is issuing a request for proposals for the project in Fall 2021.
Phillip Blancher, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Morrisburg Leader