Feds to study enhanced passenger rail service in southwestern Ontario

Federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra speaks at the Via Rail station in London, July 21, 2021. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

While a timeline and price tag weren’t given, the federal government is pledging to upgrade passenger rail service in southwestern Ontario.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, who was joined by London MPs Peter Fragiskatos and Kate Young and London Mayor Ed Holder, made the commitment at the Via Rail station on York Street on Wednesday morning.

“Our government will be exploring the opportunities to enhance passenger rail services in southwestern Ontario to see how we can improve service west of Toronto,” said Alghabra. “Our government knows that there is demand for enhanced passenger rail services… We know that improved passenger rail service in this region would provide better options for travellers while also improving the economic growth of communities along the rail network.”

The study would examine ways to create faster, more frequent, and reliable rail service along the Toronto-London-Sarnia-Windsor corridor. It comes on the heels of the federal government’s announcement of a $500-million upgrade to passenger rail services between Toronto and Quebec City.

However, unlike the Toronto-Quebec City corridor announcement, the one for the southwest region did not include firm dates for when improvements would be seen or what they will cost.

“That will come with the further study that we are going to conduct now. Of course we want to get more reliable, more frequent, faster service. This is what we will be looking at with this exploration right now,” Alghabra said when pressed about costs and timelines. “Can we have more capacity on the existing tracks? Do we need to buy more cars? Do we have to build additional tracks? These are the important and philosophical questions that need to be answered first. Once we have an answer to those questions we can give timelines and costs.”

Fragiskatos, who along with Young, has been pushing for improved passenger rail service in the London-area for several years, stressed that Wednesday’s announcement was good news for the region.

“London could have been ignored. It was ignored by the previous government,” said Fragiskatos. “The key thing is that we have taken a turn here for the better. London is mentioned here in a very serious way. We are going to see improved rail service as a result. The details need to be worked on now, but I think we are on a very good path.”

His words were echoed by Mayor Holder who noted no “reasonable” taxpayer would expect the government to spend millions of dollars on a project without first doing adequate research.

Ahead of the study, the feds will reach out to the provincial government to ensure there is no duplication of provincial transportation plans and to identify areas of collaboration.

Via Rail and the Canada Infrastructure Bank through the High Frequency Rail Joint Project Office will also be tapped to ensure any enhancements southwestern Ontario can be integrated with the high frequency rail in the Toronto to Quebec City corridor.