VIA Rail Canada announced today that Siemens Canada has been selected as the successful bidder in its fleet renewal program for Southwestern Ontario and the Quebec-Windsor Corridor. This is a day that transportation advocacy groups like the Southwestern Ontario Transportation Alliance (SWOTA) and Transport Action Canada have campaigned for, and we welcome this investment in VIA Rail and environmentally responsible transportation.
The 32 new bi-directional train sets – 160 passenger cars and 40 locomotives – will be assembled at Siemens plant in Sacramento, California and based on the Siemens Viaggio design, which has been operated on Austria’s express intercity “RailJet” services in Europe since 2006. This design has also proven itself in North America on Brightline’s express rail services between Miami at West Palm Beach, which will soon be extended to Orlando and Tampa under the Virgin Trains USA brand. Similar equipment is also on order for Amtrak’s Midwestern services and to replace older equipment on California’s inter-city rail services.
The passenger cars will have fast wireless internet, bicycle spaces, quiet zones, and will surpass current universal accessibility standards. They will feature wide aisles, larger washrooms, level boarding at stations with high platforms like Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, and automatic lifts for accessibility at other stations, helping to fulfill VIA Rail’s commitment to Canadian disability and veterans’ groups.
The trains will run at up to 160 km/h on existing routes, including tracks which VIA Rail services share with CN’s freight operations, and are capable of operating at more than 200 km/h if the federal government also approves VIA Rail’s High Frequency Rail proposal to provide dedicated passenger tracks in parts of the corridor.
The new equipment could also be used to improve service frequencies and reduce travel times in our region if Ontario’s new government transforms the previous government’s exploration of High Speed Rail into a targeted investment in maximizing the utility of existing rail corridors across Southwestern Ontario.
The first trains are expected to be delivered for testing in 2022, and to be phased in across the Quebec-Windsor corridor over the following two years.
SWOTA has been calling for investment in modern bi-directional trains since its inception, and has previously highlighted the Austrian example as a model to follow for investment in high performance passenger rail in Canada. The funding for this equipment, to replace trains as much as 70 years old, was announced by the federal government in April 2017, partly fulfilling a Liberal policy commitment to improved passenger transportation between Canadian towns and cities.
Siemens Canada has pledged to source 20% of the parts and services required to deliver the new fleet from Canadian suppliers, establishing procurement offices in Ontario and Quebec.
VIA Rail undertook a fair, open, rigorous and transparent procurement process following the best international practices in this field, but the decision to award the contract to an international bidder has come under fire from unions and Quebec politicians who would prefer to have seen a Canadian supplier win. However, Bombardier Canada has not produced new equipment for VIA Rail since the last LRC passenger cars rolled off the production line in 1984, due to the lack of capital funding for new intercity rail equipment from Canadian governments for more than a generation. This has left VIA Rail with one of the oldest fleets in the world, a significant risk of a fleet availability crisis even if the new fleet order suffers no delays, and unable to take any risks with this procurement. With major US fleet orders already committed to other manufacturers, it is unlikely that a new Canadian design would receive the follow-up and export orders needed to justify its development costs.
Meanwhile, Bombardier has benefited from numerous orders for its highly successful bi-level commuter equipment, both from Canadian and US transit agencies, including an order for up to 999 cars for New Jersey Transit worth as much as $3.6 billion, clearly demonstrating that Canadian workers also enjoy the advantages of bilateral trade in the rail industry.
VIA Rail is also investing in refurbishing its fleet of Budd-built stainless steel passenger cars for transcontinental and regional services, providing updated seating, wheelchair lifts and fully accessible bathrooms. These contracts, and a contract for refurbishing four dinning cars, have all been awarded to Canadian companies, supporting some 300 jobs in Quebec. With the “Renaissance” fleet of British-built cars on the Ocean service to Halifax also in need of replacement, transportation advocates hope to see federal funding to refurbish more of VIA Rail’s stainless steel sleeping cars in the near future, a contract that is also likely to go to a Canadian facility.