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Obsolete trains |  VIA Rail is asking Ottawa for billions to avoid the worst

Obsolete trains | VIA Rail is asking Ottawa for billions to avoid the worst

VIA Rail Canada will need billions of dollars from the federal government to replace its long-distance trains, which will reach the end of their useful lives by 2035. The Crown corporation fears it will be forced to make significant service cuts if nothing is done.

“All the cars you see here have traveled the equivalent of 195 times around the world. It is enormous. They are very close to retirement,” says the railway authority’s communications director, Jean-Vincent Lacroix.

His group invited journalists Thursday to a very rare media tour of its Montreal maintenance center, located in the Pointe-Saint-Charles area. The goal was clear: to demonstrate that replacing long-haul equipment is urgent, and that we must focus on it quickly to avoid the worst. “2024 will be a very important and even decisive year for us,” says Mr. Lacroix.

So far, the end of the useful life of these trains has been set at 2035, but many of them are already in poor condition. “Since 2019, we have gone from more than 200 cars to about 175. That is 25 cars we had to get rid of. This has reduced our capacity and forced us to cut some services, especially in the western Canada”.

Photo by Robert Skinner, Press

Andre Bouchard

According to him, this downward trend will inevitably continue, hence the need for urgent action. “Our maintenance staff perform small miracles every day to keep the equipment serviceable […]“But we should still see a decline in the coming years,” notes Mr. Bouchard.

Most long-distance trains were built between 1946 and 1955; Therefore it has already accumulated between 69 and 79 years of existence. These are the cars that connect Halifax to Quebec, and then Toronto to Vancouver. It also serves regional routes, such as Winnipeg-Churchill or Montreal-Centaire, whose frequency is likely to be significantly affected in the coming years.

In the United States, the average age of Amtrak equivalent trains is 34 years. In France, at the French National Railway Company, this figure reaches 16 years.

Quick, call for tenders

The railway company is therefore asking the federal government and Transport Canada to quickly launch a call for bids for the supply. Once started, it should take at least ten years to replace all the trains.

“The longer we wait, the greater the impacts. If the status quo […] “It will be the end of long journeys,” laments Mr. Lacroix, who believes this poses a danger to remote areas and indigenous communities, who depend on this service for daily transportation.

We still don't know how much this extensive replacement will cost, but it is certain that it will cost at least a few billion dollars. In the Quebec-Windsor corridor, the cost of new trains is about 1.5 billion, over a range of 1,500 km, while the total network to be covered here is about 10,000 km.

Photo by Robert Skinner, Press

André Bouchard and Jean-Vincent Lacroix

Tons of new trains are already expected to be added to VIA Railway's fleet in the coming months, but only on the Quebec-Windsor corridor.

Deliveries of the Venture models, which will be operated in this corridor to the south, have already begun. “We have received 13 new trains, ten of which are already in operation, out of a total of 32 trains. They are all supposed to be received by 2025,” Lacroix said on Thursday, on the sidelines of the visit.

Funds have already been secured for a future high-frequency train (TGF), north of the river, but nothing is yet guaranteed for long-distance equipment. Earlier this week, Martin Embo, who heads the VIA Rail subsidiary responsible for the TGF, suggested that traveling by train between Montreal and Toronto in three hours, or even less, might be possible.

The call for bids for this multi-billion project was launched last September. In addition to the reference scenario, where trains will operate at maximum speeds of around 200 kilometers per hour on commuter railway lines, the three selected consortia must propose a more ambitious version with reduced travel times.

With Julien Arsenault Journalism

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